The Queensland Reds once again head into a new Super Rugby season with a side horribly light-on in experience. Coach Brad Thorn will be banking his crop of youngsters can finally transform potential into consistent results.
Queensland haven’t been anywhere near the finals since 2013, racking up 65 losses in the last six years. 2019 produced as many wins (six) as any campaign since last making the post-season, but it was no improvement on 2018 and still saw them finish second-last on the overall ladder.
There’s plenty of improvement required if they’re to make it back to the finals in 2020.
With captain Samu Kerevi gone to Japan the Reds have been dealt a massive blow – amongst the Australian sides this year, only Rory Arnold’s departure from the Brumbies can rival the impact of Kerevi’s loss.
Scott Higginbotham, Sefa Naivalu and Caleb Timu are some of the other high-profile outs Thorn has to deal with, but the addition of Wallabies James O’Connor and Henry Speight are welcome ones.
Liam Wright is the new skipper and – unsurprisingly for a side with just three players in their 30s – there’s some promising young talent at Ballymore, including Junior Wallabies skipper Fraser McReight and 2019 NRC Rising Star Harry Wilson.
Filipo Daugunu won’t be available for selection until Round 5, courtesy of a suspension picked up in the Reds’ trial against Melbourne.
Angus Blyth, Sean Farrell, Feao Fotuaika, Harry Hockings, Harry Hoopert, Tom Kibble, Alex Mafi, Fraser McReight, Josh Nasser, Brandon Paenga-Amosa, Izack Rodda, Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, Angus Scott-Young, JP Smith, Taniela Tupou, Seru Uru, Harry Wilson, Michael Wood, Liam Wright
Jock Campbell, Filipo Daugunu, Chris Feauai-Sautia, Carter Gordon, Jack Hardy, Bryce Hegarty, Isaac Lucas, Scott Malolua, Tate McDermott, James O’Connor, Jordan Petaia, Henry Speight, Moses Sorovi, Hamish Stewart
Captain: Liam Wright
Coach: Brad Thorn
Ins: Sean Farrell, David Faeo, Carter Gorgon, Tom Kibble, Josh Nasser, James O’Connor, Hunter Paisami, Henry Speight, Tuaina Taii Tualima, Seru Uru, Michael Wood
Outs: Will Eadie, Scott Higginbotham, Samu Kerevi, Adam Korczyk, Gavin Luka, Efi Maafu, Matt McGahan, Liam McNamara, Sefa Naivalu, Duncan Paia’aua, Ruan Smith, Teti Tela, Caleb Timu, Aidan Toua, James Tuttle, Seb Wileman
The Reds were a strong enough team with ball in hand last year, finishing the year in the top three for defenders beaten and running for more metres than any other Australian side. Much of that was due to Kerevi, one of the elite ball-runners in world rugby and the lynchpin around which the Queensland gameplan was built.
Without the former skipper, those numbers are going to decline. If the plan of attack remains the same the results will be disastrous, but a change of tactics to fit the personnel should lead to a side which can hurt their opponents in more ways.
O’Connor is obviously not as strong a carrier as Kerevi, but both his passing and kicking games are streets ahead. His presence in the centres should give the Reds a more multi-dimensional threat from midfield, while Speight’s excellent workrate and solid finishing will make him a welcome addition to the side.
It doesn’t get too many plaudits without a dominant rolling maul to complement it, but Queensland’s lineout is one of the more reliable ones in the competition; they lost less than nine per cent of their throws last year. Adding a strong kicking game and maul, and suddenly they’ll have a readymade avenue to the scoreboard on their hands.
It’s worth, too, noting the class of the Reds’ youngsters. We all know Jordan Petaia’s quality after his three World Cup appearances, Izack Rodda and Taniela Tupou are Wallabies regulars aged 23, and captain Wright already has a maiden international cap at 22.
Add in Wilson and Isaac Lucas, who both put in excellent trial form and look set for Round 1 starts, Tate McDermott and Fraser McReight (currently nursing a broken thumb) and you have a strong young core, all of whom are well on their way to playing for Australia in the near future.
It’ll come as no great shock to read that a team which hasn’t threatened to make the finals in more than half a decade has an unhealthy helping of vulnerabilities.
The Reds might have been a decent enough running team last year, but their offloading was staggeringly bad – comfortably the worst in the competition:
Their lineout throwing was reliable, but their scrum was the second-worst in Super Rugby. They finished in the bottom half of the league for both tries scored and tackling percentage, and only two teams received more yellow cards than them.
Without many seasoned heads in their squad, they lack the experience which is so important in close games and when facing early deficits.
So there’s a fair bit for Thorn to sort out – and the coach himself is going to come under increasing pressure if results don’t start to improve in the third year of his tenure.
If there was one thing to focus on for Queensland, it would have to be the defence. They conceded more than 27 points and 3.5 tries per game last season, putting them in the bottom five in the league for both measures.
By contrast, the championship-winning Crusaders conceded 16.7 and 2.1 respectively. Good defence isn’t the be-all and end-all, but it consistently sets the platform for the best teams’ success. It’s a platform the Reds could dearly do with.
Rodda has a stranglehold on a starting spot for both the Wallabies and Reds having emerged as one of the best locks in the country over the last couple of years. With Rory Arnold now in France, the 23-year-old finds himself at the top of that second-row pile.
The exact makeup of Queensland’s pack is still up in the air – will Lukhan Salakaia-Loto finally shift into the second row, who gets a gig at the back of the scrum alongside Wright? – so having such a reliable performer at lock will be of great benefit.
That’s not to say Rodda is at the top of his game yet. His work in the lineout it top-notch and his defensive workrate is right up there, too, but there’s room to develop his impact with ball in hand and at the breakdown. In such a young team, he’ll also be relied upon for his leadership as one of the senior players – in experience, if not in age.
Lots for someone in their early 20s to contend with as that might be, Rodda has shown himself to be entirely capable of handling most things thrown at him on a rugby field. If he continues to improve, he may well drag the rest of this Reds team with him.
Thoroughly disappointing as 2019 was for Queensland, there is one rather significant ‘what if’ which hangs over it: what if Jordan Petaia hadn’t suffered a season-ending Lisfranc injury in Round 3? In the one full game he played against the Highlanders, Petaia showed more than enough to prove he would have made the Reds a far more dangerous outfit had he been fit for the rest of Super Rugby.
Now fit and with three eye-catching World Cup appearances under his belt, Petaia is primed for a breakout Super Rugby season. Regardless of whether his side can get out of their seemingly endless slump, the 19-year-old (who’s listed at a very un-19-year-old-like 103kg and 191cm) will provide a bright spot throughout the year.
His combination with the returning O’Connor will be an area of real strength, giving the Reds one of the best centre pairings in the competition.
Another finals-less year awaits the Reds, although bringing O’Connor and Speight to the club and Petaia back from the casualty ward should spark some kind of an improvement.
Even with those three in the side, Queensland lack the experience and grunt up front needed to break their post-season drought.
Prediction: Fourth in the Australian conference