The atmosphere at the Reds versus Rebels game on Friday night was festive, with plenty of kids in the crowd enjoying their school holidays by supporting the Reds.
Queensland Rugby Union put on a good show for them, with a hip-hop dance troupe before the game and a best-dancer competition at half-time. Sitting in my seat with the older, more sedate crowd in the platinum stand it was awesome to hear the youngsters at the ends of the park chanting, “Reds! Reds! Reds!” in support of their team.
The Reds rewarded their supporters with their best win of the season against the higher-ranked Melbourne Rebels, with a 37 to 23 scoreline and four tries to two. Both teams had lost key players to injury – the Reds were without George Smith and Samu Kerevi while the Rebels were down Adam Coleman and Will Genia.
However, on paper the Rebels looked the better team player for player, with game breakers including Amanaki Mafi, Reece Hodge, Jack Maddocks, Marika Korobete and Dane Haylett-Petty in the starting side. The Rebels could even afford to have Sefanaia Naivalu on the bench.
Yet despite the apparent lopsided contest, the Reds played to their strengths in the forwards and won. The Reds scrum, spearheaded by the fearsome ‘Tongan Thor’, Taniela Tupou, humbled a Rebels pack, which included six internationals, by forcing multiple scrum penalties and a penalty try. Thor also showed what he could do with ball in hand, flattening Wallaby Nathan Charles, who bravely tried to tackle him. Charles spent a few minutes being tended to by medics but thankfully walked off.
Other highlights of the game included Izaak Rodda’s charge down and try off a Maddock’s kick. I reckon with his King Kong physique, square jaw, cropped haircut and sweaty headband, Rodda would win first prize for being the Australian rugby player who most looks like a rugby player, and on Friday he again showed the work rate and physical presence to back the image up.
Hamish Stewart also impressed by taking down a rampaging Amanaki Mafi with a cracking hit and then getting up without looking like a hair out of place.
Filipo Daugunu scored an excellent try, but what drew as big a cheer from the crowd was when he forced a penalty on the opposing winger, getting over the ball after a tackle in a way that would make George Smith proud.
Scott Higginbotham’s big hit on Tom English to shut down a Rebels overlap and an almost certain try was a massively important moment in the game, as was Higgenbotham showing his experience off the back of the scrum to offload and set up Filipo Dauganu’s try.
But the real revelation for me was how 18-year-old Jordan Petaia filled Kerevi’s big boots at 13. Of course the highlights reel shows his excellent effort to draw a player and offload to Jono Lance, who scored the Reds final try. However, what impressed me as much was Petaia’s defence, in particular when the Rebels looked to make a break from their own 22 in an overlap situation and Petaia shut them down with a clinical covering tackle.
All of these moments show that, despite their inexperience, the Reds have a group of players who can take their chances in the big moments and do something special. Important as well is that the win means that the Reds have won more than four games in a season for the first time since 2015 and have had two new players start with the Wallabies this year on top of a number over the previous two.
This should give fans confidence that despite a challenging season the team is heading in the right direction.
If people want to see how quickly things can improve when a new coach gets that happening, they only need to look south to how well the Waratahs have done this year despite their four-win season in 2017.
Next week the Reds play the Sunwolves, who showed they are not to be underestimated with their 63-28 flogging of the Reds in Tokyo in Week 13. I am sure the Reds will be showing the Sunwolves the respect they have earnt, and hopefully the fans will too by turning up to cheer on the Reds.
A final thought. Tanaelia ‘Thor’ Tupou reminds me of Tendai ‘Beast’ Mtawarira, being an awesome ball-running prop with a cool nickname. Wouldn’t it be great if those kids at the end of the park could start a thing like the South Africans do with their ‘Beast’ call, yelling “Thor!” when Tupou gets hold of the ball or makes a tackle? Just a thought.