Fit Vunivalu could fire Reds to title

featured, Rugby, Rugby Union, Suliasi Vunivalu, Super Rugby Pacific

Brad Thorn left nothing on the training paddock but blood-flecked scabs.

In the heat, in the rain, in the sideways sleet of Dunedin, didn’t matter. Long as it hurt. If there was pain he was gaining something, he was growing, evolving as player and man.

Thorn didn’t so much test himself out of his comfort zone as run around in the nude in zones full of gravel and pointy sticks, and leopards.

And from all this flagellation grew a legend: The Man Who Played Forever. Brad Thorn became rugby’s Father Time.

He turned up to training with Canterbury Crusaders early in 2001 not knowing anyone or – importantly – how to play rugby union.

But he was keen to learn, and to prove and ingratiate himself among fellow Kiwis.

At the end of a fitness session he’d rip off another fitness session. Extras on extras. Just him, alone, running up the field, hitting the deck, getting up, running, and repeat.

It was like there was a sergeant major in his ear. Drop! Get up! Run, you bastard!

His new teammates looked out from the sheds and wondered: what the hell is the mad Mungo doing?

The Crusaders of 2001 were New Zealand’s finest. They’d won three straight Super XII titles. They were full of All Blacks. And when Thorn turned up, a well-known league man from flashy bloody Aussie, the locals weren’t like, “Hurrah! Brad Thorn is here!”

Good as he’d been in league, as ‘famous’ as he was, taciturn South Island types weren’t enamoured.

Indeed they were, well, a bit mean.

But he adapted and overcame, as he always did, and learnt scrummaging and lineouts (belting people came naturally) and went on to play for the All Blacks before returning for another premiership with Brisbane Broncos, State of Origin titles with Queensland and back to NZ to win the World Cup.

Two weeks after ridding New Zealand of that great baboon on its back, Thorn was running about for Munakata Sanix Blues in a near-empty Sanix Genkai Ground in Japan’s Fukuoka prefecture.

Reds coach Brad Thorn

Brad Thorn (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

So revered was the All Blacks giant that a dozen teammates would follow him into the gym to do what he did. There we so many that the coach asked him to stop it – the real fitness guy was losing face.

Aged 37 Thorn played for Leinster in Heineken Cup, and won the comp.

Aged 38 he turned out for the Highlanders, played his 100th Super Rugby match, and won the comp.

Aged 40 he announced his retirement.

Aged 41 he ran out for Queensland Country in the National Rugby Competition.

Queensland Reds thought about signing him. Offered him a coaching gig instead.

He looked after the under-20s and Queensland Country (who, yes, won the comp).

And then, after 462 games and 17 titles, the indomitable Brad Thorn finally stopped playing. And today he’s coach of Queensland Reds. And if any of the man’s method infiltrates players’ mindsets, the Reds will remain the best team in Australia. And could begin to knock over some of the good teams eastward.

What’s new?
Former Melbourne Storm strike weapon Suliasi Vunivalu, due to return in early rounds from hamstring complaints, looms as the difference between Queensland knocking over more Kiwis than the Chiefs. He was a dominant force in league, an all-running athlete and acrobat. Queensland – Australia – is hanging out to see him play.

Suliasi Vunivalu

Suliasi Vunivalu (Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

Star on the rise
Michael Lynagh’s young bloke Tom (Louis is the Lynagh in England with Harlequins) looks the spit of his dad and impressed Reds captain Liam Wright in a trial by playing a “commanding the role at 10”.

“He put his body on the line and played some smart footy,” Wright told The Sydney Morning Herald.

Jock Campbell can also play 10 (and wing and fullback) while Lawson Creighton is among the playmaking options.

Who’s under the pump?
Anyone who doesn’t jump when Thorn says. And whoever’s tending to Vunivalu’s thighs.

We’re excited to announce the launch of The Roar Rugby Podcast co-hosted by our experts Brett McKay and Harry Jones and featuring some special guests. You can check out the trailer below and the guys will be back for a full Super Rugby preview on Wednesday.

Best-case scenario
They win the Super 12.

Not joking. For consider:

There are Wallabies in 9, 10, 12, 13 – Tate McDermott, James O’Connor, Hunter Paisami, Jordan Petaia.

Strike on the wings – Vunivalu, Campbell, Filipo Daugunu.

Wallabies in the back five – Wright, Harry Wilson, Lukhan Salakaia-Loto.

Hooker Alex Mafi was the leading try-scorer in the Super Rugby AU competition with six (equal with a fullback, Tom Banks of the Brumbies). Richie Asiata, 25, was forged under Thorn at Queensland Country.

And there’s a tighthead prop, Taniela Tupou, who can do things a tighthead prop should not be able to do.

And around all those guys is a coterie of big lumps in their early 20s being forged in the furnace of Field Marshal Thorn.

They won’t lose because they aren’t fit.

In 2021 the Reds beat the Brumbies three times, including the final, when O’Connor scored the match-winner four minutes into injury time. They also won 40-38 in a rip-snorter in Canberra.

They also flogged the Waratahs twice, which always pleases Queenslanders.

Worst-case scenario
Lose to the Waratahs.

Round 1 predicted starting team

15. Jock Campbell
14. Ilaisa Droasese
13. Jordan Petaia
12. Hunter Paisami
11. Filipo Daugunu
10. James O’Connor
9. Tate McDermott
8. Harry Wilson
7. Liam Wright
6. Angus Scott-Young
5. Lukhan Salakaia-Loto
4. Ryan Smith
3. Taniela Tupou
2. Alex Mafi
1. Feao Fotuaika

Richie Asiata, George Blake, Angus Blyth, Lopeti Faifua, Harry Hoopert, Fraser McReight, Josh Nasser, Zane Nonggorr, Tuaina Taii Tualima, Seru Uru, Dane Zander, Lawson Creighton, Josh Flook, Mac Grealy, Isaac Henry, Spencer Jeans, Tom Lynagh, Hamish Stewart, Kalani Thomas, Suliasi Vunivalu

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