QPR StoreLocal Hospital Cup Countdown: UQ, Norths, Sunnybank and GPS

Wed, Apr 3, 2024, 6:08 AM
Jim Tucker
by Jim Tucker

With the StoreLocal Hospital Cup season right set to kick off this Saturday around Brisbane and the Gold Coast, we've delved into each club to shine a light on the season ahead for the QPR's nine teams.

UNIVERSITY OF QUEENSLAND

After so long as the hunted, new skipper Brad Twidale and the University of Queensland are very much the hunters for the StoreLocal Hospital Cup in 2024.

The Red Heavies open the new season on Saturday against Wests at Sci-Fleet Stadium with the fresh resolve that can only be born out of the sort of crashlanding they had in 2023.

After seven straight seasons in the grand final, UQ tumbled to a humbling seventh in 2023 with just six wins from 16 starts in Queensland Premier Rugby.

The fall from grace cut deep with experienced premiership winners like Twidale, who will skipper the side this season.

The trigger for a much better 2024 was born on August 27 last year when messages starting pinging around Brisbane on the team’s WhatsApp group.

“We all started texting on grand final day and the message was pretty much the same, ‘this can’t happen again’. Not being there really lit a fire,” UQ coach Elton Berrange said.

Are UQ a fallen powerhouse or can the club bounce back to the recent premiership highs of 2017, 2019 and 2021? It is one of the season’s big questions.

The club is without long-time warrior Pat Morrey and top pack recruit Lachie Connors won’t be available unless UQ make the finals in August such is the recovery time for the shoulder he injured during the trials.

Berrange has not simply dismissed 2023 as the unfortunate result of a huge injury toll which meant 56 players featured in Premier grade.

He has turned the microscope on himself.

“As coach, you take responsibility. I was probably one coach short last year and did more coaching and less observing than I needed to,” Berrange said.

New attack coach Damon Virtue and new defence coach David Miles have given UQ better balance off the field this year.

Tongan World Cup halfback Manu Paea and Niven Longopoa, a fullback with a sharp left boot, have added X-factor to the backline while the returning Kye Oates adds calm class.

“We don’t have Pat’s presence this season but Conor Mitchell and Adam Korczyk are excellent standard-drivers in the pack in their own right,” Berrange said.

“We’ve put a good squad together and we get to see where we are on Saturday against Wests, our closest neighbour.”

NORTHS

It’s encouraging to hear Norths coach Daniel Ritchie talk of sustainable success and longer-term goals when the club has been king of the one-year plan far too often.

There’s a great documentary in Queensland rugby’s perennial battlers if they do finally turn the corner and climb from the cellar.

You can only admire those who put heart and soul into the Eagles. Ritchie is one and the revival he’s backing is built on the Colts who have been groomed at the club since a five-year plan was hatched in 2021.

In the opening rounds of 2024, nearly half of the top grade side or more will be recent Colts graduates. It will make the Eagles the youngest of the Premier grade line-ups because even oldies like Conor Chittenden are only just nudging 30.

“We’re obviously in a rebuilding period. In the past, the club has chased short-term success while sacrificing sustainability and something more lasting,” Ritchie said.

“We’ve brought some excellent Colts through to first grade over a few years and built better habits and standards along the way.

“We want to play a high-skill, high-speed game. We’ve got to keep improving our set piece and defence to back that up.”

Losing 2023 Colts skipper Oliver Milne to a season-ending knee injury at training was extremely unfortunate and takes out a key lock.

Youngsters Connor O’Regan and Jack Hussey will run the side in the halves while Jordan Luke will skipper from the wing.

No Hamish Muir (unavailable) at fullback will make Saturday’s match-up against Souths at Chipsy Wood Oval a little tougher.

SUNNYBANK

The Dragons had a light trial schedule which won’t make Saturday’s opener against Bond University on the Gold Coast any easier.

Coach Rob Roiri is banking heavily on the calm leadership and class of flyhalf Liam McNamara and lock Zac Shepherd.

“Liam’s level head and calmness helps the younger guys on and off the field. He’s just the skilful player we need at No.10,” Roiri said.

“Zac will captain the side. For any team rebuilding, you need people who know the importance of making sure the small stuff is done well and know the roles in our system.”

If the Dragons ever get their frontline front-row on the field together, they will be formidable at scrum-time with Alex Hodgman, Richie Asiata and Sef Fa’agase on the books.

“All those guys have bought in and come down to training which is a good sign because the club is really committed to rebuilding,” Roiri said.

GPS

The Gallopers are definitely entering a new era with stalwarts Michael Richards, Chris Kuridrani, Josh Collins and Jack Straker all retired.

Only new skipper Oliver Bartlett and high-class flanker Matt Gicquel remain from the club’s 2018 premiership team which is another measure.

“It’s something we have spoken about. There have been some big shoulders for the club to stand on. This is a new group with some good experience and we’re hungry to build something this year,” coach Sio Kite said.

Marist College Ashgrove product Campbell Moller will make his first grade debut at outside centre against Easts at Ashgrove on Saturday.

Junior Wallabies backrower Nick Baker is also a big part of the club’s future in 2024 while it's time for fluent Floyd Aubrey to dominate on the club scene like the Reds squad player he is.

TOMORROW: BROTHERS, EASTS, SOUTHS, WESTS, BOND UNIVERSITY

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