Expectation was in the air as the 18,000-strong crowd shuffled into Suncorp Stadium on Saturday night.
The expectation was borne of the Reds’ exciting close loss to the Highlanders the week prior. We thought we were going to see them bring the same entertaining game against the Crusaders. There was no real expectation of them getting a win against the most successful rugby union club on the planet, though, which perhaps became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
As it turned out, the game itself had its entertaining moments, principally from a couple of magical Crusaders tries right at the start. Crikey, those lads have some skills. What other team has an outside centre who can put a left-footed kick across the park for his winger to score a try more skilfully than most fly halves?
Jack Goodhue, a chunky, aggressively blond-mulleted unit who looks like he might well get his cardio chasing a pack of pig dogs through the wet New Zealand forests, left no doubt why he has nailed down the All Blacks No. 13 jersey.
Once the Crusaders had given their rugby union equivalent exhibition of the Harry Potter wizarding world’s broomstick-riding game of Quidditch, the game settled down into being more informative than entertaining. The Reds showed the sort of defensive heart that coach Brad Thorn and defence guru Peter Ryan have been working so hard to instil in their players, with a 91 per cent tackle success rate and the only Crusaders tries after the initial two coming off rolling mauls.
What reinforced my confidence in the Reds’ defensive grit most was 130-kilogram-plus rookie prop Feao Fotuaika making a string of big tackles in a row right before he was substituted at around the 45th minute. Subsequently I checked the ESPN rugby website and it turns out the big man made 13 tackles with only one miss in just over a half of rugby. Bloody outstanding!
Fotuaika was schooled by All Blacks prop Owen Franks come scrum time, though, giving away multiple penalties for incorrect binding. The same thing happened the previous week against the Highlanders. Whatever problems Fotuaika is having with his scrummaging technique in the big jump from NRC to Super Rugby, I reckon with a work ethic like that he demonstrated in that game, he will have it sorted out by mid-season.
For all the gritty defence, the Reds just couldn’t seem to get the attack going for much of the game. The Crusaders dark arts had a fair bit to do with that – jersey pulling, subtle obstructions and hits off the ball abounded, and at one stage while there was a Reds lineout right on halfway the Saders backs were clearly lined up two metres on the wrong side of the ten-metre line.
However, it seemed that reputation clouded the minds of the officials and the Death Eaters got away with a lot of their black magic, befuddling the Reds playmakers into popping off poor kicks and returning to their ‘give it to Samu’ approach from previous seasons.
It was only when Peter Ryan, who was sitting in front of me, barked at the playmakers to hold onto the ball that things started to change. When the Reds were disciplined and patient, using their big ball runners to grind forward against the Saders, they were able to get into a position to put Samu Kerevi over the line, with Scott Higginbotham doing the same thing from the back of a scrum off the bench.
That is the big lesson for the Reds this game. Rugby has always been about what you can get away with – the Crusaders aren’t cheaters, they’re just the best at winning. As an ex-Crusader, Brad Thorn would know that the battle against teams like these is in the chest and between the ears, and the Reds have that half right.
Aside from Fotuaika’s outstanding effort, the most heartening, if unusually so, thing I saw about the Reds’ attitude was when Jordan Petaia came off injured early in the first half. He was absolutely devastated, which was hard and good to see at the same time – it’s clear he clearly loves his rugby.
Hopefully Petaia is not laid off too long, but in any case having motivated young players like him and Fotuaika learning the hard lessons now against the best club on the planet bodes well for the remainder of the season for the Reds.