There are few better places to start looking for a side’s prospects in 2013 than reviews of their play last year. Another look at the tapes can challenge prejudices the viewer might nurture – or confirm opinions already held.
With that in mind replays of two Reds games, against Blues and Crusaders in New Zealand, are rich sources of information.
They encourage a number of observations: how smart the Reds are, tactically: how the abilities of Rob Simmons should not be forgotten: how Greg Holmes struggled against Owen Franks at scrum time, with Robbie Deans watching from the stands, one week after the Waratahs front row enjoyed parity, or better, against the Crusaders; and, above all, how the smallest player in the Reds’ ranks will leave the biggest hole.
Will Genia was superb.
In which facets? All of them. His box-kicking was wonderful, almost always providing a contest for willing chasers, always getting his side moving forwards.
The passing was crisp, with Genia popping those trademark short, flat passes right on the gainline, or going wider – to 10 or 12 – when he saw the space.
For Dom Shipperley’s try against the Blues in Auckland, Genia turned his body and produced a precision, right to left looping pass over the last defender to put his winger in the corner.
And when the Reds went to the pick and drive, a favourite tactic, there was Genia sitting in a little pocket behind the big men, organising and encouraging.
He does all of these things while holding up the defensive line with the threat of running the ball himself, and with a low error rate.
Less heralded, although frequently seen, attributes were also on display. From the back of one under-pressure scrum in Christchurch, he somehow picked up the ball and and still manage to recycle possession under a mass of forwards.
In the ‘sweeping’ role played by the modern No.9 – Genia is particularly solid under the high ball – he again showed that his kicking out of hand has the length and accuracy of any five-eighth in Australia.
It is the completeness of this rugby package that makes it so difficult for the Reds to replace, regardless of how sharply they are coached.
His possible replacements are no mugs, either. In both the Crusaders and Blues games Ben Lucas reiterated what a fine player he is, with his accurate crossfield kicks and stout defence a particular feature.
In his opportunities last year Nick Frisby brought immense energy and promise. But neither has the mastery over the role Genia has.
And the halfback position has become so influential that the greatest change to the All Blacks’ way of playing last year was brought about simply by the introduction of a new, faster No.9.
In Super Rugby’s ruthless environment the Reds’ rivals will see a vulnerability to their early campaign. The talk has been of Genia returning in round six.
By then all of the Australian sides, as well as the Hurricanes, will have had a crack at the Queenslanders,. At the very least defence coaches will sleep easier in Genia’s absence.
It complicates Quade Cooper’s comeback, too.
There might be some Australian players relishing the opportunity to put him under a little physical duress should the quality of ball coming his way decrease, or give him less time. But it is not all negative for the No.10.
If he takes ownership of the side and directs them well without his partner in crime it may be a long-awaited sign of increasing maturity.
There has been a lot of distracting talk recently about the possible release or non-release of players for fixtures that are four and a half months away.
But we’ll learn some important lessons much sooner than that.