They did everything right – enough to win, right up until the start of the 80th minute. Yet the Reds walked off Suncorp Stadium on Saturday night knowing they let a massive opportunity slip.
Even when Crusaders replacement scrumhalf Bryn Hall scored the first of his two late tries, the Queenslanders still led 20-12 in the last quarter of the match.
They were the better team on the park, even if they hadn’t added to their halftime tally.
Yet somehow, when push came to shove and the Reds found themselves with the numerical advantage, it was them, and not the Crusaders, who pulled the turtle head back into the shell.
Somehow, the Reds lost all their run.
And this is typical of a rebuilding team. They’ll get themselves into a winning position, but inexperience will conspire against them in some weird way, and they’ll lose a game they probably shouldn’t in a manner they can’t explain.
It’s hard to remember a more aggressive – and more successful – off-season recruitment and repatriation program than what the Queensland Rugby Union undertook during 2016. They found out the hard way last season that youth alone wasn’t going to rebuild success, and that some proper ‘old heads’ were needed to guide these punks along the way.
So while the QRU had, and still have, some unbelievably exciting talent on their roster, it wasn’t until the return of Stephen Moore, Scott Higginbotham and Quade Cooper, and the addition of George Smith, that teams on notice.
And with good reason. Add upwards of 500 Super Rugby games of experience to any side, and you’ll quickly adjust expectations.
But after three games, it’s interesting – and really encouraging, if we’re honest – that the Reds’ best players have been the young guys: Duncan Paia’aua, Izack Rodda, Adam Korczyk, and even James Tuttle.
The presence of Paia’aua at inside centre is not new; he played there toward the back end of last season, and spent a lot of time there during the 2016 NRC. But he’s taking pressure and focus off Cooper, and to a lesser degree, Karmichael Hunt. In doing so, he’s allowing these guys to become a more dangerous prospect in attack when they do take the ball to the line.
And it’s bringing out new elements in the Cooper and Hunt games. Cooper is learning to play without having to be the primary playmaker. Hunt is ghosting into attack and through defences like he used to off Darren Lockyer back at the Brisbane Broncos.
Paia’aua already has a strong combination with Samu Kerevi, and it’s clear that Paia’aua and fellow young gun Izaia Perese enjoy playing off each other. This is all a huge improvement on the at-times cluelessness the Reds’ attack showed last season.
Perhaps more importantly, Paia’aua has added some serious starch to the midfield, as Crusaders and All Blacks centre Ryan Crotty found out several times on Saturday night.
Coach Nick Stiles said in his Fox Sports interview at the start of the second half (which is way more insightful than anything a player has tried to breathlessly utter walking off at halftime) that his side was “finally playing the way we want to play”, and there’s no doubt the Reds enjoyed the best 40 minutes of the season.
Though he didn’t say it, Stiles would’ve been rapt with who was leading the way.
Rodda’s promotion to the starting side for the Crusaders game put the appropriate shot across the bow of Rob Simmons and Kane Douglas, and it was notable that both had much-improved games, with Douglas coming on after halftime in place of Rodda. The message to a couple of Wallabies locks is clear: there’s a 20-year-old kid here equally as capable of doing the job; lift your game.
Korczyk started the first two games of the year effectively, and has shown himself to be equally home on either side of the scrum, making him an excellent bench sub for Smith or Hendrick Tui. And as many Roarers have noted – or demanded, in some cases – you do wonder how far from a well-earned start Tuttle is.
That they couldn’t finish the job on Saturday night will annoy the young Reds all the way to South Africa and most of this week as they prepare to take on the Lions at Ellis Park. That’s a good thing.
The hunger of that loss, coupled with the experience they’ve now gained and the follow-up discussions that will inevitably be had on tour with the ‘old blokes’ is where the game is really learnt. And it’s at this prospect that Reds fans (and Australian rugby fans prepared to put pointless parochialism to the side) should be getting excited.
Judging by Roar regular Rhys Bosley’s piece yesterday, that excitement is already there in Brisbane; they’re just waiting to let it all out properly.
It’s clear that this squad is a long way off being the finished product. It’s also entirely possible they’ll come home from South Africa and Argentina in two weeks’ time with nothing but passport stamps.
But if they can put more performances together like the first 79 minutes against the Crusaders, with the young guys leading the way and the older guys supporting them so well, this Reds side will win more games this year than they don’t.