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.
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.
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.
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.
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.