The Queensland Reds suffered their first trial loss in three years on Friday night – falling 20-8 to the Super Rugby champion Chiefs – but there were some rewards on the Sunshine Coast.
Halfback Ben Lucas and flanker Ed Quirk – sized up to fill the boots of Will Genia and Scott Higginbotham for round one – were among the most impressive players at Stockland Stadium as the Chiefs came from 8-0 down to win.
And Queensland’s oft-maligned scrum were dominant for the first hour as their starting pack dictated terms in the set-piece.
But without their big three of Wallabies skipper James Horwill, general Genia and pro-boxing playmaker Quade Cooper, the Reds struggled running into the wind as the Chiefs put on a 20-point second-half burst in front of 4692 fans.
All Blacks five-eighth Aaron Cruden showed he’d lost none of his zip from 2012 and combined brilliantly with his backline while the home side were let down by poor handling under pressure.
The Reds have lost only one pre-season game under Ewen McKenzie – back in 2010 against the Western Force in Perth – and they were well in the game at 10-8 down with 10 minutes left.
But an Albert Anae mid-way fumble – one of many running into the wind – was the spark for a counter-attacking raid finished by Augustine Pulu.
Winger Aseli Tikoirotuma then sealed the result in the dying minutes.
There was no shortage of feeling between the 2011 and 2012 champions, highlighted by nasty scuffle on the ground between the team’s littlest men in Ben Lucas and Aaron Cruden.
The Reds had the wind at the backs in the first half but it was their set-piece dominance which laid the foundations for an 8-0 lead at the main break.
Queensland have boasted one of the best lineouts in the competition in recent seasons but it was their scrum which led the way.
But it took the home side until the 38th minute before Liam Gill, who pick and drove for two five-pointers in last week’s trial win against the Blues, crossed for the opener, again from close range.
Skipper James Slipper produced the biggest play of the first half with the last – producing a huge front-on tackle on Sam Cane to save a certain try.
Despite the loss, Slipper ended the match in laughter when told Cooper was victorious in his bout against Barry Dunnett – thanks to a first-round knockout.
“Is that a joke,” he asked. “That’s a bit of a surprise.”
Both sides were relieved all their players came through unscathed, while McKenzie rated the highly physical clash a fine tune-up for Saturday week’s opening-round clash against the Brumbies in Canberra.
“We would have loved to have won it on the scoreboard but there was some good bits and pieces out there,” he said.
“To go into the Brumbies game with that type of game was good.”
On top of the scrum dominance, the Reds director of coaching was also heartened by Quirk’s continued rise and the confidence of Lucas, who produced a second-half goalline try-saver on burly No.8 Fritz Lee.
“We got some clarity about a few things (selection wise),” McKenzie said.
“I was really pleased with the way (Quirk) has gone to another level this pre-season. That back-row combination (with Gill and Jake Schatz) worked really well.
“The ball control was disappointing – that’s what cost us on the scoreboard.
“We had a lot of possession but we didn’t control the ball well.”