Former All Black Brad Thorn’s rebuild of the Queensland Reds will be put to the ultimate test in the Super Rugby AU final on Saturday, with the mighty ACT Brumbies standing between them and the title.
Many questioned the 2011 World Cup-winner’s wisdom when he ditched Wallabies playmaker Quade Cooper in 2018 and several other senior players as part of his grand plan.
But his young team are now in their first Super Rugby final — albeit a domestic version, after the coronavirus pandemic halted international rugby — since the Reds won the southern hemisphere tournament in 2011.
While Dan McKellar’s Brumbies have been the standout during a coronavirus-impacted year, winning six of their eight regular season games to top the table and book a home final in Canberra, the Reds have taken giant strides.
They won five from eight then beat the Melbourne Rebels in last weekend’s playoff, and go into Saturday’s crunch clash in Canberra buoyed by convincingly upsetting the Brumbies 26-7 this month.
“Grand final week — this is what it’s all about,” said Thorn.
“Many of our guys in this group have come through our pathway and club rugby — they’ve thrived and have grown as men during this year.”
Their emergence was recognised by Wallabies coach Dave Rennie, who named 11 Reds in his squad to play Bledisloe Cup Tests against New Zealand next month then the Rugby Championship.
They include uncapped players Tate McDermott, Fraser McReight, Filipo Daugunu and Hunter Paisami, along with skipper Liam Wright, who is still only 22.
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– Former bad boy –
– Former bad boy –
Queensland, however, haven’t won in Canberra since 2014 and will again be looking to the experience of playmaker James O’Connor to pull the strings.
Once the bad boy of Australian rugby, after a string of disciplinary problems, a more mature O’Connor has been a pivotal figure this year.
“We know what we have to do and we want to go down there and just finish it off,” said O’Connor, who was also in Rennie’s squad.
After being cleared of concussion, the dangerous Jordan Petaia will shift to the right wing for the Reds with Chris Feauai-Sautia ruled out with a groin injury.
It means Paisami will start at outside centre. In the forwards, JP Smith starts at loosehead prop with Harry Hoopert dropping to the bench.
McKellar, whose side made the 15-team Super Rugby semi-finals last year, sprung a surprise by picking Noah Lolesio in his starting line-up despite the 20-year-old not playing since July 18 due to injury.
Lolesio, another of Rennie’s uncapped call-ups, will form a halves pairing alongside recalled Wallaby Joe Powell, with experienced scrum-half Nic White coming off the bench.
“To be able to play a home final in front of our family and our supporters is something we set out to do at the start of this competition and we can’t wait for that opportunity,” said McKellar.
“We’ve prepared well over the last two weeks and we know the Reds are going to be a huge challenge on Saturday night but it’s one we’re looking forward to.”