The Super Rugby season looms and after an international season that was memorable for all of the wrong reasons, the prospect of watching my beloved Reds again, as usual, has me dizzy with excitement. I’ll take a look at the Reds 2014 season (sorry), player movements in the off season and then with my Red tinted glasses firmly planted on my one eyed face, I’ll take a look at the year ahead.
2014 Season Recap
I’m going to start by saying, that if you’re a Reds fan, this section isn’t going to be pretty to read. There is no hiding the fact that the 2014 season was one of our worst. By looking at our failures though, we can learn and improve. Try and stick with me.
The Reds started 2014 in the same way they have started the last few years; with an excellent squad on paper, superstars like Genia and Cooper talking the talk, and well hyped youngsters fit and raring to go, ready to set the world on fire! While they had lost their head coach, Ewen McKenzie, to the Wallabies and a number of quality players like Adam Wallace-Harrison (ret), Jarrad Butler, Radike Samo, Jono Lance, Digby Ioane and Luke Morahan, the signing of Lachie Turner and the hushed whispers surrounding some of the youngsters coming through (Toua, Kerevi, Placid and Taulagi) had most of us Reds fans saying, ‘Just you wait and see!”
There are no gimmies in Super Rugby but some games are certainly tougher than others. Playing the Brumbies in Canberra for the season opener (round 2) would fall into the tougher category but the boys went, they saw and they conquered. Round three was a reality check. We were thrashed by the traditional enemy in Sydney. It wasn’t that it was a record defeat in Sydney, it was more how we went about the game. The game had shades of opposites day, where the Tahs looked more like the Reds of old and the Reds, well, something was amiss. This was enough for some Reds fans to waiver and start asking some questions of the new coach already.
The season continued on in much the same vein. We won some and we lost some but there was an ever so slight but growing feeling that something just wasn’t right. The games we won, weren’t that convincing but the games that we lost I often felt we could’ve won. On our South African Tour in rounds 5 and 6, we took on the undefeated Sharks and the 2014 surprise packets, the Lions. Against the Sharks we were our own worst enemies. Poor discipline handing Francois Steyn points from anywhere within 60m but the killer blow was our third rate handling. Mike Harris spilling a dolly of a ball with only the try line in front of him was gut wrenching to watch. Against the Lions, some fairly dubious refereeing saw us reduced to 13 men in the end and lose the game in the dying minutes. Instead of coming home from South Africa with 4-8 competition points we left with 1 point and a suitcase full of coulda’s, shoulda’s and what ifs. The rusted on Reds fans were still staying staunch but many could see the writing on the wall already and it was only round 6.
In round 7, the Reds played only their second home game of the season, hosting the terribly out of form Stormers. With close to a starting XV injured for the Stormers and playing their 4th game on their Australasian tour, the Stormers should have been easy pickings. Errors in handling and in judgement reigned supreme. The Reds were out scored 2 tries to 1 and would’ve seen this game slip from their grasp, saved for some diabolical decision making form the Stormers in the dying minutes. The win elevated the Reds to 9th on the competition log.
The next 8 rounds produced 6 losses (4 of them at home) and 2 byes and ended with the Reds sitting all alone on the bottom of the table. Although the Reds managed to pick up a couple of wins from the last 4 rounds, the criticisms were still coming thick and fast; the Reds were seemingly failing at every aspect of the game. Poor handling and missed tackles were commonplace. We seemed bereft of any structure in defence and our attack (if you could call it that) was pedestrian at its absolute best. Fans were blaming the coach, injuries, even a tough draw. You name it, I’m sure it was used as an excuse. Blaming the draw was nonsense and although there were some horror injuries (one game in particular the Reds were missing Genia, Cooper, Toua, Shipperley, A Fainga’a, Quirk, Gill and Holmes) all teams get them and still manage to perform better that the Reds did in 2014. No, the blowtorch was aimed fairly and squarely at the coach.
It seemed likely that the powers that be would be looking for a replacement head coach for 2015 and even a full clean out of coaching staff wasn’t inconceivable but the rhetoric coming from RedsHQ was indicating that Richard Graham had the full support of the board. They also indicated that Graham did the best he could with a team he had inherited and that squad changes were well advanced for the 2015 season. They told the fans to be patient and relax. Things were looking up for 2015 and all will be revealed in good time.
The biggest failures of the Reds in 2014 were a lack of any appreciable game plan, little to no direction in attack, poorly structured and poorly drilled defence and poor basic handling and skills execution. All of these failings fall at the feet of the coach. It was always going to be a hard sell to regain the faith of the fans with a few new recruits.
The player drain started midway through the season. Reds players were being announced as new signings for other Australian franchises and also overseas clubs yet nothing was coming out of the Reds camp. In total we lost: Jono Owen, Albert Anae, Ben Lucas, Mike Harris, Aiden Toua, Dom Shipperley, Rod Davies and Jonah Placid. Some of those names, while disappointing, didn’t bother me that much but some of the names really had me worried. Players like Owen and Anae, who had been developing well and were probably ready to start hitting their straps pretty soon were upsetting. Mike Harris, whilst never an individual superstar did so much more for the Reds than he was given credit for; and his boot? A goal kicking boot like his is hard to replace. Lastly, the loss of Placid was the most upsetting of all. The guy will be a champion and I know you can’t keep them all but if there was ever a young ‘un to hang on to, I think Jonah was the one.
Finally the big day came, the Reds Gala ball. The day that they would be announcing the new look Reds 2015 squad had arrived. There was a hell of a lot riding on it. Did they deliver? Only time will tell but on that night and in the weeks to come, they announced the new signings.
- Karmichael Hunt (AFL – Gold Coast Suns)
- James O’Connor (Toulon)
- Adam Thompson (Canon Eagles)
- Hendrik Tui (Suntory Sungoliath)
- Campbell Magnay (NRC – QLD Country)
- Lolo Fakaosilea (NRC – QLD Country)
- Andrew Ready (NRC – Brisbane City)
- Taniela Tupou (Sacred Heart College)
The signings included Internationals from three different countries and two different codes boasting 127 Super Rugby and 100 Test Caps between them. They announced the signing of a young player that had been chased hard by the NZRU only to lose him to the Reds and a number of young players that had shown plenty in the NRC.
Luck of the draw
It’s fair to say that to win the Super Rugby Championship, you need a fair bit of luck. You need to have a good run with regard to injuries; a good bounce of the ball can be the difference between a win and a loss and it never hurts to get the rub of the green when it comes to the officiating either. But in a comp where momentum is king, the luck of the draw can be often quite decisive.
The Reds have probably gotten one of the better deals in terms of the draw. With only 2 games in the first 7 rounds being played ‘away’ they will be well placed to take full advantage of the home ground advantage and get some early wins on the board. If they can jag a win over either or both of the Brumbies or the Highlanders away in rounds 1 or 3 then they could be doing very well by the middle of the season. The flip side to this is that if they fail to capitalise on the early run of home matches, the season could well be over before it begins with a very tough run to the play-offs that include playing teams like the Crusaders (A), Sharks (H), Chiefs (H) and Waratahs (A) in the last 6 rounds.
The two byes for the season are perfectly placed in rounds 6 and 12 so the longest stretch without a week off is the run to the finals where they play 6 games on the trot.
The South African Tour is always a big talking point for Australasian teams, such is the difficulty of winning in South Africa. The Reds have drawn the Bulls and the Cheetahs away. The Bulls and the Sharks are tipped to be the top two teams of the South African conference so to avoid one of them is a plus. If they can come home from the Republic with 4 or more points then that would be a very positive result.
Lastly, each team will miss playing one team from each opposing conference during the regular season and for the Reds these teams are the Stormers and the Blues. Whilst neither team is regarded as being one of the bigger threats in their conference, both teams have troubled the Reds in the past.
The Reds in 2015
From the Queensland Reds website the 2015 squad currently sits at 32 players.
Props: Ben Daley, Greg Holmes & James Slipper (c)
Hookers: Saia Fainga’a, James Hanson & Andrew Ready
Locks: James Horwill, Rob Simmons (vc), Dave McDuling & Ed O’Donohue
Backrowers: Curtis Browning, Lolo Fakaosilea, Liam Gill, Ed Quirk, Beau Robinson, Jake Schatz, Adam Thomson & Hendrick Tui
Halves: Will Genia, Nick Frisby, Quade Cooper & Duncan Paia’aua
Centres: Anthony Fainga’a, Chris Feauai-Sautia, Samu Kerevi, Campbell Magnay & Ben Tapuai
Outside Backs: Karmichael Hunt (vc), Chris Kuridrani, James O’Connor, Jamie-Jerry Taulagi & Lachie Turner
A reasonably large turnover of players from 2014 to the current season saw the Reds bringing players in from outside of the country and even outside of the code. The squad, as assembled, is an impressive list and combines superbly, experience, diversity of styles, youthful enthusiasm and straight out natural talent.
The 2015 Reds squad that contains 6 Super Rugby rookies boasts an impressive 1488 Super Rugby and 508 Test Rugby caps; an average of 46 Super Rugby and 16 Test caps per player.
A starting team can be named from this squad that bumps those averages up to 74 Super Rugby and 31 Test caps per player. This team includes the ‘rookie’ Karmichael Hunt who brings his own wealth of experience and whose 125 first grade Rugby League caps, and 15 games for Biarritz have not been included. If they can keep the nexus of this team on the park for the bulk of the season then it’s experience like this that may well be the difference between winning and losing games. Considering that they lost 4 games in 2014 by 3 points, a win in each of them would’ve been an extra 12 competition points.
Players to watch
There is a lot of young talent coming through the Reds this year and plenty of Rugby fans are waiting with baited breath to see what they will bring. When it comes to players to watch though, the Reds have made a few key signings that have Australian Rugby fans chomping at the bit to see what they will bring.
Known mainly for his time in Rugby League and the Brisbane Broncos, Karmichael has joined the Reds from the AFL. He was a fearless player in Rugby League and a complete player. The quintessential professional, reports from the Reds HQ are that from day 1 Hunt has been raising standards on and off the paddock. Among those in the know, Hunt is still known by many as the greatest Schoolboy Rugby player of his time and he showed again in France playing Rugby for Biarritz between League and AFL contracts showed that he still had the skills that set him apart back in the day. At 28 years of age, his body has played more footy than a lot of 30 somethings but many pundits already have him pencilled into the Wallabies World Cup squad.
There’s not a lot I can write about James that hasn’t already been written. Very few have ever doubted the kid’s Rugby ability; let’s face it, he is a freak of a talent. How he goes on the field isn’t why he will be one to watch though. Wallaby fans will be keen to see how he conducts himself as a person. Can we believe the talk this time? Has he changed like he says he has? Most of us want to believe it but once bitten, twice shy as they say. If he goes the way of good mate Quade Cooper then this will be a savvy buy for the Reds. If he follows the example set by his other good mate, Kurtley Beale, then the disruptive influence could really do some damage on the stability of the Reds this year.
For me, this is the most exciting buy of the off season. The Highlanders are my favourite NZ team and so I’ve seen him in action plenty. Since 2011 the Reds have been hurt by the loss of key forwards like Higginbotham and Samo. Guys that can get across the gain line. Adam has this ability. A terrific runner of the ball, he has the size and pace to get front foot ball for the backs all day. He has been running riot recently in the Japanese Top League at one stage scoring 9 tries in 6 games. He also brings a professionalism and work ethic that will give some of the younger players something to follow. The words ‘All Black’ will command respect.
Strengths and Weaknesses
Probably the Reds biggest weakness has already been exposed. Depth at fly half. Young Duncan Paia-aua would’ve been counting on coming in and doing a season’s apprenticeship under Quade and getting some time off the bench to apply what he had learnt. Cooper’s untimely injury threw the season’s preparations into disarray and Duncan into a starting role for the first trial. The second trial see’s another Super Rugby rookie being trialled at flyhalf in Hunt.
The other main potential weakness is in the tight five. Injuries to either Horwill or Simmons with test or depth at lock and the fact that we only have 3 props in our main squad means that we will need to access the wider training group to get an extra prop for our match day 23. Fortunately, guys like Talakai, Paraka and Fagaase all impressed in the NRC and look well equipped to tackle the rigours of Super Rugby.
In terms of strengths, if we can get our backline humming without Quade, we will certainly have legitimate threats across the field to keep defences guessing. I expect our lineout to continue to be a legitimate attacking weapon and with the burgeoning kicking game that Karmichael Hunt showed glimpses of in the first trial, this could create headaches for oppositions all season.
1. Slipper 2. Fainga’a 3. Holmes 4. Simmons 5. Horwill 6. Thomson 7. Gill 8. Schatz 9. Genia 10. Cooper 11. O’Connor 12. Tapuai 13. Kerevi 14. Kuridrani 15. Hunt
I’ve noticed that the previews for the other Super Rugby franchises have tip toed around this section. You’ll get no such thing here. The Reds have recruited well, and can field multiple teams with threats across the park. They have a wealth of experience and they know what they need to do to win. The various shortcomings from last year will have been sorted. They have been working hard in the off season and are chomping at the bit. They have a favourable draw and and I’m tipping that they’ll be one of the final two teams left standing. I will boldly predict that they will bookend the ‘Super 15’ competition by being the first and the last winners of the trophy before the expansion next year. You read it here first. WE ARE RED!!!