No excuses for Queensland Reds as they chase drought-breaking title

Four years on since the clean out at the Queensland Reds began, it's time for the rebuilding era to end and for the side to deliver Brad Thorn some much needed silverware to cap off his tenure, and banish their rocky start to the year.

Signing a one-year extension with the club following the Reds heartbreaking Super Rugby AU final loss to the Brumbies last year, 2021 could be Thorn's final season as head coach, with high expectations the team will finally claim the title and end their ten-year drought.

It's much deserved expectations too, with Thorn investing heavily in youth for the Reds rebuild. He's gone on to lay all the building blocks to see the side grow from cellar-dwellers to title contenders in just three years, and now is the time for the team to repay their coach's faith and fulfill its potential.

It's a sentiment shared by Wallabies and Reds great Tim Horan, who didn't mince his words just days out from the Reds season opener, warning Queensland that now is the time to find success.

"This year has to be the year for the Reds," Horan said. "Brad Thorn, it's his fourth year as head coach, first year he won six games, second year six games, last year, a disjointed season but went really well, nearly won the final.

"They've got to deliver and they know that. The players know that and the coaches know that. They've had plenty of time to get their backline and pack right.

"They've got to win the final to be a success."

It's been a long journey for Thorn and his Reds. Taking charge in 2017, he turned heads with his hardline stance on off-field discipline as he looked to rebuild the culture at the struggling side. One of his first moves was to controversially overlook Quade Cooper for Reds selection, instead trusting in youth, while he oversaw the departures of James Slipper and Karmichael Hunt following drug related incidents.

But his unwavering stance has proved pivotal in the rebuild. The Reds have seen massive growth, their culture almost unrivaled in Australian rugby, while Filipo Daugunu, Liam Wright, Tate McDermott, Fraser McReight, Hunter Paisami and Harry Wilson all made their Wallabies debuts in 2020 off the back of breakout seasons under Thorn.

But a turbulent start to the season has seen Thorn's uncompromising nature tested yet again before a ball has even been kicked with new recruit, and Australian rugby's most exciting prospect for 2021, Suliasi Vunivalu sparking controversy with an off-field incident. Thorn was forced to sideline the 25-year-old for the opening match of the season.

It may have been a hard decision, but it was the right one to make. No one player can be bigger than the team. It's an ethos that Thorn has spent years drilling into his players and something his captain Liam Wright backs up.

"It's part of that culture we've been building," Wright said. "There's been talks about it being a hard decision because he's a big signing and a superstar, but in our eyes in the face of the organisation and the playing squad it wasn't a hard decision.

"It's standards we've tried to build and we want our standards to be higher this year given we're going for more, going for silverware. There's no leeway based on whether you're an academy player or a big star."

To add to the preseason misery Thorn has been forced to find a replacement captain after Wright was sidelined for 10 weeks with an ankle injury, on a night the Reds were put to task by their rivals the Waratahs in a trial match.

It was a hard choice to make, finding a new captain, not because there are no obvious replacements, but because there are so many players who could easily take on the role. Thorn has managed to produce leaders across his side, even in young players such as Harry Wilson and Fraser McReight, both touted in the media as suitable captains.

Instead he went with a player who perhaps personifies the Reds cultural rebirth. A reformed bad boy, James O'Connor returned to the Reds in 2019, and made sure his play did the talking while distancing himself from his previous off-field incidents.

"I can't get around Rabs [O'Connor] enough, it's been a lot longer than [just] 12 months," Wright said of his replacement. "He's been doing some serious work on his mind and his body since 2015, 2016, when he was at Sale and that was a big part of the Reds bringing him back and Brad giving him a second chance here.

"It was a seriously good time on Friday night with everyone celebrating Rabs' announcement [as captain]; he's got the team's full support. I think he's very comfortable in his own self now, which is something really admirable and it shows in the way he leads."

Now with all Thorn's pieces in place, a revitalized culture, a new interim captain and a season opener at home for the first time in four years, there are no more excuses for the Reds.

Wright says the players know it, too. This is the year they must prove themselves a championship team. "This year is shaping [up] really well and it's something we've spoken about at length in our group, in that we don't want to shy away from the fact that we want to win.

"We want to start that successful culture that we're trying to build in Queensland, but it begins by winning this year. Our guys aren't shying away from that fact and I think James will be really good in driving that."