Super Rugby preview: Reds No.1, with Cooper the key

Brett McKay Columnist

By Brett McKay, Brett McKay is a Roar Expert

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    As I’ve worked my way through these Australian conference previews, it’s been interesting to note the opinions being expressed around the Queensland Reds for season 2017.

    What’s become clear, reading the comments, articles, and indeed, previews in other publications, is that there’s no consensus on where they’ll finish.

    The opinions backed by some degree of rational thought have them finishing anywhere between first and third, which is hard to argue, while some of the more ludicrous suggestions have them finishing last in the Australian conference. That’s not hard to argue at all – it’s blinkered wishful thinking.

    I’ve had them pencilled in to top the Australian conference since the first few days of January, and nothing I’ve seen of the Reds in action since then has changed my mind. If anything, it’s been further underlined.

    Forwards
    We know the Reds’ lineout will be good in 2017, but if James Slipper and the young props can ensure the scrum set piece is equally as strong, then that’s half their battle won this season.

    And the exciting part of that prospect is that it seems highly likely that the Reds will properly unleash Taniela Tupou on Super Rugby this season.

    It feels like it’s been a long time coming, but all previews we’ve had to date indicate it’s going to be worth the wait.

    Wallabies captain Stephen Moore may well begin the season as the starting hooker, but will he start every game?

    My very strong suspicion is that he won’t, and I wouldn’t at all be surprised if he misses the odd away game or tour.

    When Andrew Ready has essentially proven himself to be a Super Rugby starter, the Reds can afford to get some more game time in young Alex Mafi.

    Lock stocks that still include Rob Simmons, Kane Douglas, and Cadeyrn Neville mean the lineout should remain strong, but a couple of very promising youngsters in Izack Rodda and Lukhan Tui, after strong NRC campaigns, will keep these guys honest.

    And that just leaves the backrow. Liam Gill was something of a lone wolf in this department for the Reds last season, but this season, the Reds have more experience than they know what to do with: Leroy Houston, the evergreen George Smith, Scott Higginbotham, and Hendrik Tui have all been there and done that, but it could be that young flankers Michael Gunn and Adam Korczyk are the big winners from the Reds’ off-season recruitment.

    Scott Sio of the Brumbies tackles Taniela Tupou of the Reds during the round 15 Super Rugby match between the ACT Brumbies and the Queensland Reds at GIO Stadium in Canberra, Friday, July 1, 2016. (AAP Image/Dean Lewins)

    Backs
    Nick Frisby became a Wallaby in 2016, but playing well alongside Quade Cooper in a winning Reds side could take Frisby from the fringe to the Wallabies game-day squad consistently.

    Cooper himself brings elements that Jake McIntyre could only dream of last season, but McIntyre is now in now better place to learn what’s required at Super Rugby level.

    The Reds’ midfield looks impressive, with Duncan Paia’aua looking likely at inside centre for Round 1, with Samu Kerevi outside him.

    But Campbell Magnay is still only 20 and has shown enough glimpses to know he could become a very good centre before long.

    Karmichael Hunt is an option at 12, too, though all signs point to him finding comfort at fullback now.

    On the wings, there’s plenty of options, though the pecking remains a bit up in the air. I’d be surprised if former Brisbane Bronco Lachlan Maranta doesn’t start the season on one wing after a high-profile code swap, and you’d think that Eto Nabuli is in front of Chris Kuridrani and the injured-anyway Chris Feauai-Sautia.

    Izaia Perese is the X-factor here, however; now a Wallabies tourist, Perese is just the kind of player you need to make room for.

    Key player
    Probably the easiest ‘key player’ to pick in the history of season previews. So much – if not all – of the Reds’ hopes in 2017 rest on the hands and shoulders and kicking boot of Quade Cooper that it probably won’t matter how many other players happen to find career-best form.

    And I say that even knowing that so many other factors – set piece, to name an obvious one – will have a major bearing in how effective Cooper can be with the ball, but it all boils down to the same key point: Cooper is going to be the difference in the Reds converting competitive games into wins.

    There were plenty of games last the Reds were competitive in, but they just didn’t have the ability to capitalise. Cooper gives them that ability.

    As much as it’s interesting to note the combination developing with Hunt, Cooper’s combination with Frisby will be the most important for the Reds.

    The sooner Frisby knows – and doesn’t have to find – where Cooper is, the more dangerous the mercurial No.10 can be, and the more complete the Reds’ attack.

    Quade Cooper of the Reds

    First five rounds
    Sharks, Force (away), Crusaders, Lions (away), Jaguares (away)

    Though the Reds look strong enough on paper, and even in the trial games, the fly in the ointment is that they’ve got a really tricky start to the season.

    You could very easily see them winning as many as three or four of those first five games, or as few as one (or yes, none, for the real pessimists).

    But, like I’ve said of a few of the Australian sides in these previews, if they can come through these first five or so games in good shape and posting wins, then they can set up the rest of their season.

    After these first five games, it’s probably only away games to the Hurricanes in Round 6, and away to the Highlanders late in the season that loom as big challenges.

    Even when on the road within the Australian conference, they’ve got enough talent and experience to know how to win those games.

    Brett McKay
    Brett McKay

    Brett McKay is one of The Roar's good news stories and has been a rugby and cricket expert for the site since July 2009. Brett is an international and Super Rugby commentator for ABC Grandstand radio, has commentated on the Australian Under-20s Championships and National Rugby Championship live stream coverage, and has written for magazines and websites in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and the UK. He tweets from @BMcSport.

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    The Crowd Says (101)

    • Roar Guru

      February 21st 2017 @ 8:05am
      Fionn said | February 21st 2017 @ 8:05am | ! Report

      Good write up, Brett. But for the purposes of being Devil’s Advocate could I suggest that Smith may also be an equal key :P? If Smith can play as well as he did in the UK, and if Higginbotham can find some good form then it isn’t a stretch for me to think that the Reds might have the best back-row not only in the Australian conference, but in the entire competition.

      I really hope that Kerevi is moved to 12 full-time (the earlier on in the season the better). He has really soft hands, good offloads and is more comfortable defending at 12 and 13. I think that Quade will be able to do some magic with Kerevi and then, long-term, that has the added benefit of the Wallabies being able to field Kerevi and TK together.

      Anyway, if they can beat the Sharks and the Force (which they should) then I think they wouldn’t feel so bad about losing 2-3 of the other matches. If they lose round 1 at home then it could be a hard start to the season.

      Overall, the team looks very strong, and unless they suffer some coaching or internal issues I can’t imagine them not finishing first (based purely on paper, who knows, perhaps another one of the Aussie coaches will work wonders like Ackermann did with the Lions in 2016).

      • Columnist

        February 21st 2017 @ 8:53am
        Brett McKay said | February 21st 2017 @ 8:53am | ! Report

        Funnily enough Fionn, I named Smith as a player to watch in a magazine preview! But the thinking was similar to what you’ve said here yourself, if Smith (and Cooper, obviously) has a strong season, he’ll lift everyone around him..

      • Roar Guru

        February 21st 2017 @ 1:55pm
        Charging Rhino said | February 21st 2017 @ 1:55pm | ! Report

        The Sharks really should beat the Reds on Friday night. It’ll be a huge setback for them if they don’t win as they’ll be expecting it. They’re a better team judging from last years performances and on paper. But 2017 is a different year!?

        After that… Go Reds! They should beat the Force and Jaguares. Saders & Lions will be very tough, can’t see this team beating those sides.. but who knows!?

        Hopefully they do well this year.
        Go Sharks
        Go Reds. 🙂

      • Roar Guru

        February 21st 2017 @ 4:42pm
        Hoy said | February 21st 2017 @ 4:42pm | ! Report

        I also like Kerevi at 12 more than 13…

        • February 21st 2017 @ 5:36pm
          dru said | February 21st 2017 @ 5:36pm | ! Report

          Plenty of Reds fans REALLY like Duncan Paia’ua at second fly. Have to admit though, if Hunt continues to be a possible second play maker from 15, there will be a temptation to bring in double big boppers in the centres.

          Duncan is the better answer for now (in my book).

    • February 21st 2017 @ 8:33am
      Paul said | February 21st 2017 @ 8:33am | ! Report

      The biggest challenge will be if the coach can ensure the whole is greater than the sum of it’s parts.

      The other concern is that while nobody can deny the calibre of the first 15 (or even 23), a few key injuries through the season and we’ll see the depth well and truly tested. Lose Quade and it’s back to last year in the backline.

      Looking forward to seeing Smithy back in Super Rugby, but I hope the backups play well because I think it’d be a bit much to expect you’ll get a full season of 80 min games out of him like you could with Gill.

      • February 21st 2017 @ 8:42am
        Maroon Kev said | February 21st 2017 @ 8:42am | ! Report

        I’d take equal to the sum of it’s parts after the last 3 seasons!!!!

      • February 21st 2017 @ 11:33am
        Gray-Hand said | February 21st 2017 @ 11:33am | ! Report

        I like Gill, but when was the last time he played a full season?

    • February 21st 2017 @ 8:37am
      TB said | February 21st 2017 @ 8:37am | ! Report

      Good preview Brett, I’m starting to get excited.

    • February 21st 2017 @ 8:41am
      bigbaz said | February 21st 2017 @ 8:41am | ! Report

      Really exciting looking side , a winning season will come down to Frisby and Cooper and their ability to unleash the backs. Can’t wait.

      • February 21st 2017 @ 5:40pm
        dru said | February 21st 2017 @ 5:40pm | ! Report

        I think Frisby’s job is to drive the pigs and listen to Quades call. Driving the backs is Quade-Duncan-Hunt. If they pull it off it will be awesome. And fortunately, it’s not JUST about Quade the way those guys are going.

    • February 21st 2017 @ 8:44am
      Paul said | February 21st 2017 @ 8:44am | ! Report

      On another note. Is it just me or is there a general feeling that since we are almost no hope of winning the trophy with any Australian team, winning the conference now our benchmark for success?

      How far we have fallen…. 🙁

      • Roar Guru

        February 21st 2017 @ 8:45am
        PeterK said | February 21st 2017 @ 8:45am | ! Report

        It is further than that.

        Not only little hope of winning but little hope of more than 1 team making the finals, so the focus is being the top oz team , to be the one that makes the finals.

        • February 21st 2017 @ 5:40pm
          dru said | February 21st 2017 @ 5:40pm | ! Report

          Sad, but true PK.

      • Columnist

        February 21st 2017 @ 9:40am
        Brett McKay said | February 21st 2017 @ 9:40am | ! Report

        It’s a fair point, Paul. It’s certainly true that a title almost definitely won’t be won without winning the Australian conference first, so that has become the primary goal. And then, knockout footy, you just never know..

    • Roar Guru

      February 21st 2017 @ 8:44am
      PeterK said | February 21st 2017 @ 8:44am | ! Report

      good review.

      QC is really the key.

      The qld forwards dominated set pieces and possession last year yet could not score tries. The backline attack was a mess. The ball carrying by the forwards predictable and lacked penetration.

      The key question for me , have the attacking patterns improved?

      • February 21st 2017 @ 10:07am
        jameswm said | February 21st 2017 @ 10:07am | ! Report

        I really think LTui needs to be fast tracked into the 23. You can get some ball running from Tupou and Slipper (and a bit from the other two props), plus Higgs and HTui. But Simmons, Douglas and Neville should only be used for attacking clearouts. They have some decent ball runners in the forwards, but they might not get much time on the pitch.

        Contrast with the Tahs – Kepu, Latu, Hooper, Holloway and Dempsey will all start. Even whoever starts at 1 will be a good ball runner for a prop, and Mumm isn’t the worst when he puts in. And add in Ned Hanigan who is very useful. Skelton is slow but attracts defenders and can pass and offload.

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