With Quade Cooper and Nick Frisby already discarded, the Reds were looking to Karmichael Hunt to lead a largely inexperienced backline in 2018.
But two drug possession charges now hang over the 31-year-old’s head and he will not be sighted at Ballymore until at least January 29.
The results of a joint Rugby Australia and QRU investigation will be handed down soon after, with the Reds understood to be taking a “one in, all in” approach in regards to Hunt’s playing future.
If Rugby AU find grounds to terminate Hunt’s newly signed two-year contract, the Reds will follow suit.
That leaves a backline void of experience for new coach Brad Thorn.One of James Tuttle and Moses Sorovi will still start at halfback but outside of that, things get complicated in the cross code star’s absence.
With Hunt in, Hamish Stewart or Duncan Paia’aua would likely line up at flyhalf, with the other taking the gig at inside centre.
Samu Kerevi has a mortgage on the outside centre jersey and Eto Nabuli and Izaia Perese would be first choice options on the wing, with Chris Feaua-Sautia and Filipo Daugunu nipping at their heels.
Hunt, presumably, would have been the first choice fullback.
That pecking order seems simple enough but here’s how things get complicated without him.
The Reds could feasibly field dozens of different combinations from halfback to fullback.
Reds backline options without Hunt
That makes for headache inducing reading and will make for similarly complex discussion at the selection table come February.
With Cooper on the out and Hunt likely to follow, there is no choice other than to hand the keys to the kingdom to Queensland’s Generation Next.Where Paia’aua and Stewart were set to take hold of the team at flyhalf, they are now going to be forced to spend some time in the preseason at fullback.
Queensland Country star Filipo Daugunu has been floated as a potential starter at fullback, too.
His kicking game would be no worse than Hunt’s given his aptitude off the kicking tee in NRC and if he was to start at fullback it would cause far less disruption to a backline that will already need time to gel without the presence of chief playmaker Cooper and vocal leader Hunt.
But if the Fijian flyer isn’t Thorn’s first choice at fullback, that leaves Paia’aua and Stewart as the candidates to fill Hunt’s shoes.
The former started one game at fullback in 2017 in Hunt’s absence but the latter may have the skill set more suited to fullback, particularly with the booming right boot in his arsenal.
Stewart would be the ideal replacement had he not steered both Queensland’s U20s and QLD Country to titles from flyhalf.That will be his best position in the years to come but whether it’s where he is required to play in 2018 remains to be seen.
With all of that said, who will suit up where remains entirely unclear and that presents one almighty challenge for Thorn in his first season as coach.
For what it’s worth, here’s a likely Queensland Reds’ best backline should Cooper and Hunt be absent in 2018.
9. James Tuttle
Did plenty right as Queensland’s primary option in 2017. Has a great pass, gets to the breakdown with haste, is a vocal leader on field and kicking game is as accurate as any.
10. Hamish Stewart
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Is still green and will only turn 20 this year but has all the tools one needs to be a great flyhalf. Elite power in his right boot and a willingness to take on the line are his biggest assets but his vision as a playmaker still needs work to truly prosper at Super Rugby level. One huge tick is his top notch defensive work.
11. Eto Nabuli
Cemented himself as a regular in Nick Stiles’ best XV in 2017 and his main danger to this spot will be Chris Feauai-Sautia, should the Reds decide he must be in their starting XV. Superb finisher.
12. Duncan Paia’aua
Has found his feet at inside centre, but yet to prove himself as a chief playmaker. Can play a role as a second playmaker while finding holes with an astute running game and improved defence.
13. Samu Kerevi
Has repeatedly said outside centre is his preferred position and has played his best Super Rugby in that spot. Will have even more pressure on him as the Reds’ solitary line buster this season.
14. Izaia Perese
Unlucky to have not debuted for the Wallabies in 2017 and he will only improve in 2018. A superstar in the making.
15. Filipo Daugunu
Close followers of the NRC will know Daugunu well. Has X factor with ball in hand and looked up to Super Rugby level through a breakout season with Country. The query over his spot will rest solely on his positional play out the back, having played almost all his senior rugby on the wing.
Combinations are key to Super Rugby success and the Reds will be forced to mix and match throughout the preseason as they rebuild after another lowly season.
How quickly those combinations gel will be the difference between a slide down the Australian Conference standings and a surge back to the peak of their powers.