He might have thrown his hat in the ring to coach the Wallabies earlier in the week, but Brad Thorn’s demeanour and relationship with his players could see the game’s greatest commodity leave Australian rugby.
Taniela Tupou, the 25-year-old wrecking ball who is poised to become the Wallabies’ next $1 million man should he remain in the game, is unhappy at the Reds and is seriously considering his options.
For more than a fortnight there have been whispers he could join the Western Force, but relations with the Reds have soured to the point there are fears from Rugby Australia he could head overseas.
It’s not the first time Tupou, who is considered an emotional player, has toyed with the idea of jumping ship.
But many believe he is a “homebody” and wants to remain in Brisbane, where there is a strong Tongan community and he is close enough to see his family and friends. He is also expecting his first child in July.
Were he to take up an offer overseas, he could earn as much as $1.5 million overseas with all three major markets – France, England and Japan – interested.
Last year there were rumblings that Tupou was frustrated by his workload with the Reds, where the tight-head prop was regularly playing close to 80 minutes.
Some believe that Tupou needs to understand that if he’s going to be well remunerated he has to understand he will be called upon to play big minutes.
Tupou, it is understood, is fearful he will be burned out.
Regardless, Tupou is a once in a generation player but has yet to dominate international rugby like he has at Super Rugby.
The Reds have tried to rectify his complaints in 2022.
He came off the bench during their win over the Force last month and has once again been named on the bench for Friday’s showdown with the Rebels in Melbourne despite Thorn suggesting the decision was as much about rewarding rising prop Zane Nonggorr.
“He’s (Nonggorr) done a lot of work and this is an opportunity for him, and it’s an important one,” Thorn said.
“I feel like he’s earnt the right.
“It’s not just about Taniela getting a rest. It’s good to have balance for all the players and around their minutes, but it’s also important to acknowledge Zane. “
But with well-established forwards Lukhan Salakaia-Loto and Angus Scott-Young heading overseas at season’s end, there is a fear that things are starting to tip over at the Reds.
Tupou is one of three disgruntled players at the Reds.
It’s understood the franchise’s most experienced player, Wallaby James O’Connor, has been tasked with representing the players to talk with the Queensland Rugby Union.
Previously Wallabies star Izack Rodda, who had been spoken about as Test captaincy material, walked away from the Reds after falling out with Thorn.
Others like James Slipper and Quade Cooper were also frozen out by Thorn, who wanted to change the culture of the franchise.
One thing that can’t be disputed is the relative success the Reds have had in recent years, with the franchise becoming Australia’s premier Super Rugby side under Thorn’s stewardship and the management of General Manager Sam Cordingley.
But after being promoted from the Queensland under-20s and Queensland Country sides, there is a fear that players are growing tired of Thorn’s head down, follow me approach as coach.
Rugby Australia is doing everything they can to keep Tupou from walking away from the game.
As one well-placed source said, “He’s one of those players that we will find money for; Taniela’s a one-off.”
Yet more broadly, another source said “this thing around Thorn and the Reds is a real problem.”
The Reds have been exploring ways of offering Tupou a sabbatical contract – or two – so that he remains a Reds contracted player.
Were he to take up the offer of a sabbatical contract in much the same way Wallabies captain Michael Hooper spent a year with Toyota in Japan, the QRU’s preference is he sign a deal with a Japanese club and be available for Super Rugby during the crucial British and Irish Lions (2025) and home World Cup (2027) campaigns.
The disquiet at the Reds comes after the QRU released an interesting statement in response to an article earlier in the week, where a RA source was quoted as saying Thorn was not considered a “team player”.
In response, the QRU was scathing.
“It’s disappointing to see these comments and after reading this, I have raised my concerns with RA CEO Andy Marinos and he will follow up directly,” QRU boss David Hanham said.
“From the QRU’s perspective, Brad is doing a wonderful job here in Queensland leading our football program and developing our players to be best prepared for both national and international success with the Queensland Reds and Wallabies.”
Thorn, too, has hit back at the unnamed RA source that was quoted by The Sydney Morning Herald, saying it was meaningless while also pointing out that all members of the Wallabies coaching structure had spent time with the Reds, including as recently as head coach Dave Rennie on Wednesday.
“It’s always interesting when someone says something like that, but there’s no name to it. Who am I talking to?” Thorn told reporters on Thursday.
“If someone close to me, my staff or my family were critiquing me in that way, then it hurts. But who are you talking to? There’s no name to it.
“Throughout my playing career in league and union, I wasn’t a guy scoring lots of tries or (doing) flash stuff, I was hitting breakdowns or taking hit-ups in league — the team stuff.
“I’ve been big on team here. I don’t know what to say.”
Meanwhile, former NRL premiership-winner Suliasi Vunivalu will make his first appearance of the year against the Rebels.
His return comes not a second too soon, with RA and the QRU interested in seeing how the former NRL tryscoring machine returns after almost a year out of the game with hamstring injuries.
Vunivalu is off contract at season’s end and has been linked to the Redcliffe Dolphins, but RA wants to see how he returns before offering him an extension of his current deal.
Former Wallabies captain Stephen Moore, 39, has also linked up with the Reds and could yet play if there is a late injury to another hooker.
“(We) just approached him and we’re down quite a few hookers, aren’t we? Thorn said.
“We get George Blake back next week, so just cover for the week hopefully.
“And it’s a cool thing having an experienced guy like him (in the squad). 100-plus Test player, 100-plus Super Rugby player, and a real Queenslander.”