To pinpoint the moment where the Queensland Reds’ re-emergence as a rugby powerhouse began, you’ve got to go back to early 2015.
It was over a coffee in March of that year where former Wallaby Sam Cordingley met Brad Thorn in the Brisbane suburb of Aspley, where the giant forward went to school.
The Reds were keen to recruit the World Cup-winning All Black, who won NRL premierships with the Broncos and Origins with Queensland, but couldn’t sign him given they already had their quota of internationals on their list.
But a question from Cordingley, who had only just started as general manager of the Reds, got the ball rolling about what life looked like for arguably the greatest dual international of all time.
“We had a conversation around what does life look like after rugby,” Cordingley tells foxsports.com.au. “He was considering going back to Leicester, but we kept in touch around what he wanted to do post rugby.
“For us, that circuit breaker, we knew we had a young group to come through, a 40 per cent turnover in your key list, you know that you’re needing to rebuild and what better person than a guy like Thorny to be a part of a coaching set-up at the academy level; a hardworking values-based guy, who demonstrated a strong vision of how he saw the club.
“He had a strong affiliation with Queensland through his NRL days with the Broncos, so there were a lot of key ingredients in someone who could be a future coach for the Reds.”
By year’s end Thorn was on board and there began the Reds’ rebirth.
At long last the Reds are back playing the rugby that saw the franchise become the talk of the town back in 2011.
Unfortunately for Queensland rugby, their success, which came off the back of Quade Cooper’s magic alongside Will Genia and Digby Ioane under Ewen McKenzie, didn’t last long.
The Suncorp full-house became emptier by the year as coaches and players disappeared like flour through a sieve.
When Cordingley met Thorn they decided to make a long-term play.
Success would not be achieved overnight, but if they stuck together they would bear fruit later.
A week ago the Reds took a giant step to moving closer to achieving what they set out to achieve by booking a home Super Rugby final. Their come-from-behind win over the Brumbies was witnessed by 22,000 people – their biggest crowd in years.
“If I look at this year in isolation, it’s probably been five or six years in the making,” Cordingley said.
“It started with a period of turmoil. Back in the 2014-15 period there was some poor financial management, our academy hadn’t operated for three years. By the end of 2015, 40 per cent of our core playing squad had departed. That accounted for something like 700 Reds caps and over 300 Test caps, so there’s a big correlation to that period and our highest ever debt position as a club.
“We definitely needed a circuit breaker after that period and we looked at building a strategy to reconnect the Reds pathway and from that point on it was always going to be pretty long play; rebuilding our academy structure, Brad’s recruitment in 2016 was tied into that strategy.”
Thorn has been at the heart of the Reds’ return from the dead.
He took charge of the Reds’ under-20s program, then transformed Queensland Country from cellar-dwellers to NRC champions in his first year in 2017 and was promoted as Queensland head coach off the back of it.
Success wasn’t achieved overnight and questions were raised about Thorn’s coaching ability after another two lean years, particularly after letting go Cooper, Karmichael Hunt and former captain James Slipper.
As Cordingley says: “We did feel like a couple of punching bags for a couple of years.”
But the Reds had bought into a long-term strategy and continued to invest in Thorn, while bringing in experienced Wallabies assistant Jim McKay to work alongside him.
Just as important as the coaches has been the stability in the staff, with manager Thomas Barker, team doctor Daelyn Cullen, head physiotherapist Gina Nelson and head of athletic performance Damian Marsh playing crucial roles in keeping the Reds fit and healthy on the field in 2021.
“We knew he would need some key people around him to be successful and it was a risk but I think it was a calculated risk and if we were going to do it, like the players, it was always going to be a long play,” Cordingley says.
The pups that were with him at NRC level have now developed into the core of Dave Rennie’s Wallabies squad.
When Rennie picks his squad to play France in July, the Reds could realistically have 10 players in the Wallabies’ starting line-up.
While the Reds know they’ve turned the corner, it’s titles and sustained success they want.
“We’re not saying that this is the finished product,” Cordingley says. “We’ve still got a hard road ahead of us. We’re not talking about dynasties or anything like that, it’s really about trying to have sustained success both on and off the field. That’s the goal of the club.”
The Reds are conscious not to let history repeat.
The Waratahs are now paying the price for failing to get the succession planning in order.
But having learned how to build a list, Thorn and Cordingley are intent on turning the Reds into a factory and following the path of the Crusaders, where Thorn learnt his craft in rugby.
It’s the Crusaders model that has served the All Blacks so well over the years, with players and coaches developing at Canterbury before progressing together at Super level and eventually on the international stage.
“The benefit of Thorny’s experience with the All Blacks and Crusaders and Broncos at their peak, it’s great to have a guy with that experience and insight,” Cordingley said.
“Our inspiration, a lot of people talk about 2011, but our inspiration goes back to the 1970s and 80s and 90s when the Reds were a real powerhouse and for a consistent period. If you look at the team of 1994 and 1995 under John Connolly, they won back-to-back titles over in South Africa – that wasn’t achieved again until the Crusaders did in 20 years later. There’ve been some terrific Queensland teams and the strength of our program is even the current players are looking back at those eras and looking at them as an era that we want to recreate.”
Fortunately for the Reds the bulk of their talent is locked in until the 2023 World Cup.
It’s a factor that the Reds and Waratahs previously didn’t achieve after their triumphs in 2011 and 2014 respectively.
But with a British and Irish Lions campaign to follow in 2025 and the strong chance of hosting a World Cup two years later, the hope is Queensland will be able to fend off the dollars being thrown at players from overseas.
Even if they do though, the Reds have recognised the importance of list management with Cordingley in control as GM and Thorn left to oversee the coaching program.
“I think the model works well for us,” Cordingley says. “Thorny’s not interested in budgets or player contracting or any of the admin. He’s no more interested than I am in being a coach. I think the balance works well for us.
“He’s got an idea of the type of player we want; strong work ethic, good people, obviously talented, we meet regularly around the list, succession planning, who is coming through.
“The strength of Thorny is he’s really interested in the pathways and who is coming through the system, which really helps me and Paul Carozza in our roles. The key is to be having the right people in those meetings. It can’t just be one person’s decision around where the list is going.
“If I look back, part of this rebirth has been a commitment to a long-term signing strategy as well. There’s been a lot of hard work around recruiting and developing our elite youth and there was a point back then where we just had to back then. We value cohesion as a club, we value players playing together in the Reds jersey. We’re now in a position where we’re welcoming in those meetings the difficulties around selection, recruitment and selection.”
Eventually the Reds will be faced with the reality of the world’s most exciting prop Taniela Tupou becoming available on the market.
Already the Wallabies tight-head has rejected million-dollar offers in France and Japan.
Only one thing can keep him in Australia: success and winning culture.
It’s what kept Dan Carter and Richie McCaw in New Zealand rugby.
With Thorn and Cordingley planning for life beyond 2021, the Reds won’t drop the ball like previous administrations have in Australian rugby.
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