MELBOURNE - A youth-led revival and the guidance of a rugged former All Black have the Queensland Reds dreaming of an unlikely playoffs berth after several years in the Super Rugby doldrums.
The Brad Thorn-coached Reds notched their fourth win of the season over the weekend, scraping home 27-22 against the Johannesburg-based Lions, last year's runners-up and the dominant side in South Africa.
A week after being routed 36-12 by New Zealand's visiting Waikato Chiefs, Thorn's youthful side needed to respond in front of long-suffering home fans.
One-test Wallabies prop Taniela Tupou was one of nine players aged 21 or under who were thrown to the second-placed Lions and ultimately enjoyed a standing ovation from sections of the Lang Park crowd.
"We had a good chat last week, had a team meeting where we discussed what we needed to work on and we worked on it all week," Tupou told Reuters on Monday.
"And then we put it out there on the weekend and got the job done, so that was good. We’ve just got to keep it up and see how we go."
Under former All Blacks enforcer Thorn, who took the reins from the sacked Nick Stiles in the off-season, the Reds have already equalled their highest wins tally of the previous three campaigns.
With eight rounds left in the regular season, they have lifted themselves to third in the Australian conference, seven points shy of the leading New South Wales Waratahs.
Top spot in Australia would be enough to secure their first playoffs berth since 2013.
"If we play like we did on the weekend, we get a few more wins, hopefully," said 134-kg Tupou, who made his Wallabies debut against Scotland in November.
Times have been tough for the Reds since their first and only championship in 2011, when bumper crowds watched halfbacks Quade Cooper and Will Genia bamboozle opponents from across the southern hemisphere.
But a buzz has returned to Lang Park with the elevation of Thorn, who coached the Reds' youth side to the national title last year.
The 43-year-old has shown scant regard for sentiment or media opinions, refusing to pick former Wallabies flyhalf Cooper while backing a number of his under-20s proteges.
It's difficult, maybe dangerous, not to listen to dual international Thorn, who won a World Cup with New Zealand, a Super Rugby title with the Canterbury Crusaders and a National Rugby League championship with the Brisbane Broncos.
"He’s a no-bullshit kind of guy, like, you just can’t bullshit him. He’s a tough man on the field at training," said Tupou.
"He wants everything to be absolutely spot on. Obviously with Thorny, you know, he’s a winner. He’s won pretty much everything. When he speaks to you, you kind of want to listen because you know he’s done it all."
With last year's harrowing axeing of Perth-based team Western Force still fresh in the memory and a 36-game losing streak to New Zealand opponents, Australian rugby could do with a good news story.
With a bye this week, the Reds will pause and reset before continuing their playoffs bid away to the Sunwolves in Tokyo.
Attention will turn to the next attempts to break the New Zealand hoodoo, with the Melbourne Rebels hosting the champion Canterbury Crusaders on Friday.
Should the Rebels fail, the Waratahs will be under huge pressure to win at home on Saturday against the injury-stricken Auckland Blues, the bottom team in the New Zealand conference.
Tonga-born Tupou was a schoolboy sensation in New Zealand but turned down a national contract to move to Australia at the age of 18.
He has endured plenty of banter from his former classmates about the losing streak to New Zealand sides, which dates all the way back to 2016.
"We need to finish that because I'm hating seeing in the media, New Zealand this, New Zealand that," said the 21-year-old.
"Yeah, all my schoolmates are New Zealanders, they’re fierce, but they know I support Australia and the Wallabies. It’s good that they hate me but also support me."