Reds about to make a statement, one way or another

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Queensland Reds player Luke Morahan looks for support. AAP Image/Dave Hunt

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If I was the wagering type, I would have deposited a small investment on the Reds being quite happy to board a flight to South Africa with looming assignments against the Sharks and Bulls.

It’s a little break from the unforgiving expectation levels at Suncorp, where some in the stands complained that Saturday’s win against the Rebels was “like 2008”.

It’s a chance move on from an opening series of domestic encounters which are all too often high on familiarity and low on fluency. But most importantly, it’s a way to draw a line under the corrosive handling errors that were excusable in round one but an emerging pattern by the third round.

Three games are enough to make our first tentative assessments of the year and the Reds have a points tally going upwards and a form line that is edging downwards.

The most assertive thing that came out of Brisbane on Saturday was coach Ewen McKenzie’s surprisingly brusque comments during the game about the lack of yellow cards.

The remarks were on the wrong side of churlishness as far as fairness to the Rebels was concerned.

The Melbourne side defended with vigour and enthusiasm rather than cynicism. This was a team that was advancing in its defensive line, not on its last legs and resorting to the desperate illegalities of a weary unit.

Hugh Pyle’s driving tackle into Digby Ioane metres from the try line summed up their energy levels with just 20 minutes left on the clock.

Besides, referee Angus Gardner, the object of McKenzie’s ire, had nothing to do with Ben Tapuai losing the ball in contact in the 46th minute or Scott Higginbotham throwing a loose pass for another turnover of possession three minutes later. These are but two examples that might provide an alternative source of McKenzie’s displeasure.

The Reds simply did not stress the Rebels’ defence enough to bring the sin bin into play.

Mike Harris, in particular, failed to enhance his reputation. Sharp-eyed rugby followers would have noticed that on the morning of the game that my Fairfax colleague Greg Growden put Harris’ name forward as one of those interesting the Wallabies.

The selection sands shift during the season but it is worth noting that one month before the start of the Test season last year Greg wrote that Pat McCabe was being looked at closely for a centre berth.

The spotlight did not show Harris in his best light.

Apart from one decent half break inside Danny Cipriani, he produced his most hesitant performance of the season, finishing the game at inside-centre, where he looked more comfortable. Those conducting the contract extension talks on behalf of Quade Cooper have had an excellent start to the season.

In the interests of balance it must be noted that Harris has plenty of company. Between them the five Australian franchises mustered just five tries last weekend, two of them to forwards. Some early-season back-line selections have looked unbalanced and played that way.

One of the downsides to Cooper’s absence has been the lack of width in the Reds’ attack.

Any fullback who hits the line at pace – whether it’s Kurtley Beale for Australia or Luke Morahan for Queensland – is a major beneficiary of Cooper’s outstanding, long flat passing.

Denied them, Morahan has been a virtual spectator and might end up as a selection casualty.

It would be a brave decision to stick Rod Davies at No.15 under Pat Lambie’s accurate bombs but you can comprehend the desire for extra zip. Despite the patchy work so far, having a game breaker such as Davies ready to come in reminds us that the Reds’ have the ability to move up through the gears against superior opposition.

You would also expect the big dogs of the back row – Radike Samo and Beau Robinson – to return after youth was given its head in the opening skirmishes.

There is also an element of the phoney war in the Australian derbies.

Willing they may be but nothing in weeks one or two prepared the Waratahs for the tempo and intensity they encountered against the Highlanders on Friday.

The Force’s Matt Hodgson was nearly knocked unconscious in a perfectly legal hit by the Hurricanes’ replacement hooker Motu Matu’u in Perth.

The Brumbies’ season will begin in earnest with a tough trip to face the Chiefs on Friday. Willem Alberts and the du Plessis brothers await the Reds in Durban.

Physicality goes up another notch against those with different accents.

Last year, the Reds made alerted the entire competition to their quality with a brilliantly executed victory in Cape Town. Champion sides are judged by higher standards and Australian rugby could do with them putting down another marker.

Paul Cully is a freelance journalist who was born in New Zealand, raised in Northern Ireland, but spent most of his working life in Australia. He is a former Sun-Herald sports editor, rugby tragic, and current Roar and RugbyHeaven contributor.
What a year 2014 has been in rugby! From the highs of the Waratahs winning the Super Rugby title, to the lows of the infamous saga that swamped our national team. What are your reflections on the year that was? What's on your Christmas wishlist for next year? If you're feeling inspired, you can share it with other Roarers by submitting an article.
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