Departing stalwart Greg Holmes predicts the Queensland Reds can return as a Super Rugby force as early as next year.
But first, he wants the Reds to make a statement of future intent against the Melbourne Rebels in their Friday night season closer at Suncorp Stadium.
The 33-year-old returns to the Reds starting side after missing last week’s heavy loss to the Chiefs due to injury and is set for his 146th and final game for them ahead of his switch to English Premiership club Exeter next year.
Liam Gill (Toulouse), Curtis Browning (Lyon), Saia Fainga’a (Brumbies) and Ben Daley (Western Force) will also make their last Queensland appearances, with all four locked into moves either interstate or overseas.
The Reds will be keen to send them all off as winners – but Holmes said the occasion shouldn’t be about individuals, but the team and its progression, calling upon the next generation of Queensland players to take ownership.
“It’s very important for this young group of players to band together and start playing a form of rugby that can be very successful next year,” he said on Wednesday.
“Realistically, you look at (2017) as a building year but you also look at who they recruited.
“There’s no reason why the Reds can’t perform very, very well next year.
“There’s a core group of young players and if you keep them together, you start getting things rolling and special things will happen here.”
Queensland have recruited Wallaby great George Smith, Australian captain Stephen Moore, seasoned No.8 Leroy Houston and ex-NRL prospect Caleb Timu in the past few months, while highly-rated youngsters like Taniela Tupou, Andrew Ready and Campbell Magnay have been blooded at the top level this season.
Quade Cooper looms as another likely signing after he officially announced his release from Toulon, although the Rebels are also interested in the mercurial Wallabies five-eighth.
Holmes said he couldn’t see why Cooper wouldn’t choose the Reds.
“He had a great career here and he had a lot of success when he was playing here,” he said.
Gill will captain the Reds against the Rebels in the absence of skipper James Slipper (sternum), who is out with injury.
Rookie fullback Jack Tuttle (shoulder) has also been ruled out with debutant Tom Banks to start in his place, while Michael Gunn comes in for Houston, who has been given the week off for personal reasons.
Reds: Sef Fa’agase, Andrew Ready, Greg Holmes, Cadeym Neville, Kane Douglas, Hendrik Tui, Liam Gill (capt), Curtis Browning, Nick Frisby, Duncan Paia’aua, Eto Nabuli, Henry Taefu, Samu Kerevi, Chris Kuridrani, Tom Banks. Res: Saia Fainga’a, Ben Daley, Taniela Tupou, Lukhan Tui, Michael Gunn, James Tuttle, Alex Gibbon, Campbell Magnay.