Queensland Reds interim co-coaches Nick Stiles and Matt O’Connor insist they can prove doubters wrong and make shared leadership work for the beleaguered Super Rugby franchise.
The duo wasted no time exerting their influence following Richard Graham’s sacking as head coach on Monday, announcing a swathe of team changes on Thursday for Saturday’s away clash with the Melbourne Rebels.
They restored Karmichael Hunt to fullback and benched Japanese import Ayumu Goromaru while recalling veteran centre Anthony Fainga’a and named a revamped forward pack with three players making their starting debuts.
Forwards coach Stiles and backs boss O’Connor both shrugged off concern and scepticism surrounding the co-coaching concept – a rarity in modern sport – in their first press conference together since Richard Graham’s axing as head coach, saying differences in opinion can be overcome.
Both are keen to put their hands up for the full-time job next season, with the rest of this Super Rugby campaign something of a running audition for the pair, but the Reds have also promised to conduct a worldwide search for Graham’s replacement.
“It’s pretty simple, it’s not about us,” O’Connor said on Thursday.
“It’s nothing to do with us, it’s about the players and we’ve got to try and get a performance out of them.
“We’re both big enough to know that if Stilesy feels strongly enough about something in the forwards and I feel strongly enough about something in the backs, there’s a reason why.
“We’ll come to the team-first solution.
“There’s a hell of a lot of collaboration that goes on anyway in the coaching group and it’s now minus one body.”
Stiles said the only real change to their roles from an on-field perspective was O’Connor absorbing the defence portfolio from Graham, who was let go when a limp loss at home to the Western Force capped a long period of under achievement under his reign.
“(Captain) James Slipper spoke to the players post-match and really showed the growth and maturity in him as a leader because what he said hit the nail on the head,” Stiles said.
“We drew a line in the sand come Monday and the boys have trained well and I’ve got no doubt we’ll see a more committed performance come Saturday night.”
O’Connor was confident Hunt was better suited to fullback than centre, even if the move came at goalkicker Goromaru’s expense.
Recalling tough-tackling Faingaa at inside centre allowed them to move big centre Samu Kerevi further out.
In the pack there is a new-look front row with loosehead prop Sef Faagase and hooker Andrew Ready both to start ahead of the benched Ben Daley and injured Saia Fainga’a (ankle).
Waita Setu gets his first starting role at openside flanker ahead of Curtis Browning.
O’Connor said reaching a final decision on the team with Stiles was a “seamless” process and that there was a glaring need for a shake-up.
“Nobody was happy with the performance (against the Force), it wasn’t acceptable and we needed to get a bit of a freshness in that side to get a performance,” he said.
Queensland Reds: Karmichael Hunt, Chris Feauai-Sautia, Samu Kerevi, Anthony Faingaa, Eto Nabuli, Jake McIntyre, Nick Frisby, Jake Schatz, Waita Setu, Hendrik Tui, Rob Simmons (capt), Caderyn Neville. Greg Holmes, Andrew Ready, Sef Faagase. Res: Matt Mafi, Ben Daley, Sam Talakai, Ben Matwijow, Curtis Browning, Scott Gale , Sam Greene, Ayumu Goromaru.