I didn’t get to see the Reds-Rebels game live on Saturday night, but was getting regular score updates. And when those score updates didn’t change for more than half an hour in the second half, you naturally start asking the subconscious questions.
Are the Rebels bottling this, or have the Reds fronted up to throw yet another curve ball into the face of Super Rugby AU this season?
Some late highlights and the Sunday morning match reports told the tale of the tape: Queensland basically tackled themselves into the ground and simply did not let the Rebels pass.
And the numbers being mentioned were truly eye-watering.
88 per cent second half possession, and 94 per cent second half territory the Rebels enjoyed. 261 Reds tackle attempts to the Rebels’ 100 for the match. And despite making nearly only a third as many tackles, the Rebels still managed to miss 20 tackles for the match to the Reds’ 31.
The Reds carried the ball just seven times in the second half, compared to the Rebels’ 101, Andrew Swain wrote in his piece for the Fox Sports website.
Wayne Smith took it a bit further in The Australian: “For almost the entire second half, from the 41st minute to the 74th minute, the Melbourne side was called on to make a total of four tackles. Yes, only four tackles.”
It was going to make for compelling viewing when I did finally get to it on Sunday night. And expecting as much, I hit play on the second half and started scribbling notes.
A page and a half of notes later, and it was pretty clear why things played out the way they did, and why the numbers were as skewwhiff as they were.
42nd minute: the Rebels find themselves in the Reds’ 22 through a penalty touch finder. They win the lineout, try to maul, but the Reds forwards do well both to halt its momentum and hold it up. Brad Wilkin manages to get his knee on the ground, and the Reds are penalised for not releasing.
43rd minute: Rebels win five-metre lineout, but maul collapses after losing three metres. The Reds forwards pull out, and their defensive line is already set before the ball emerges at the back for Rebels scrumhalf Frank Lomani.
Marika Koroibete runs the hard line left of the uprights, but is ridden to the ground in a front-on tackle by Reds lock Angus Blythe. Referee Damon Murphy calls “Short” despite more of Koroibete being over the try line than isn’t. The Rebels run two more pick-and-drives, but the Reds’ pillar defence holds.
Cameron Orr lines up a carry in front of the posts with front row partner Pone Fa’amausili in tow, but Reds opposite Taniela Tupou launches himself into the contact and forces the ball free out the back.
44th minute: Lomani scoots to the openside, wide of the right hand upright and gets an offload away to Koroibete after contact. Koroibete again charges at the line with only scrumhalf Tate McDermott in front him, the Reds no.9 taking the front-on contact and brings the Wallabies winger down on top of him with the momentum of impact.
Fa’amausili mist-times his out-in run back at the edge of the ruck and isn’t used. Lomani finds outside centre Campbell Magnay wrapping around on the outside, with fullback Reece Hodge running an unused line back toward the ruck. Reds midfielder Hamish Stewart and winger Filipo Daugunu slide off Hodge and swamp Magnay.
The Rebels set a pod back on the openside to the left, with Fa’amausili, Trevor Hosea, and Isi Naisarani. Skipper Matt To’omua is set behind them at first receiver and has another group of players – backs and forwards – in no particular alignment outside him.
The Reds at this point have 12 defenders between the right-hand upright and the touch line visible and all ready to come off the try line.
The Rebels pick and drive to the short side, then three more short phases back to the left but make no gain and are still inside the 15-metre tramline on the near side of the field. The ball suddenly appears at the back and Reds flanker and captain Liam Wright wins the turnover but loses the ball in contact.
Koroibete picks up on the run back to the openside, and finds flyhalf Andrew Deegan who now has a 3-on-1 in front of him, before passing to winger Andrew Kellaway and with Hodge outside him.
The Reds defenders are scrambling madly, led by McDermott, which quickly allows Jordan Petaia to remain outside covering Hodge. Kellaway holds onto the ball, McDermott makes the front-on contact before James O’Connor and Petaia both arrive. Hodge overruns and doesn’t offer Kellaway any assistance, who loses three metres into the tackle, but manages play the ball backwards.
45th minute: The Rebels are now four metres from the left-hand touchline and the Reds already have five players upright in the line and no-one in the ruck. Mat Philip takes a hit-up to the openside.
Lomani finds To’omua closer to the middle of the field, but he’s hit ball-and-all as Hodge again overruns in support. Reds flanker Fraser McReight is all over the ball as the arriving player and wins the penalty.
46th minute: Having won the ball back, the Rebels win another penalty for the Reds offside. Murphy is on the mark, pretty much in centre field and no-more than thirty metres out.
To’omua, having already kicked a penalty goal in the first half, has now kicked 10/10 penalties in the last four games; he’s kicked 15/16 penalties for the comp, 24/28 in total, for 86 per cent. This should have been a penalty he’d kick blindfolded, and importantly, would narrow the gap to eight points.
But Lomani took a quick tap. To’omua was in close proximity, but the players closest to Lomani as he runs are Deegan, Fa’amausili, flanker Josh Kemeny, Naisarani, hooker Jordan Uelese, and Orr. The Rebels push the ball through five more phases but never cross the Reds’ 22, before Naisarani ultimately loses the ball in contact after being absolutely drilled by a Lomani pass.
I’m not going to go back over all the excellent points Geoff made yesterday about a lack of leadership letting the Rebels down in key moments, but this was a display window example right here.
It was the 47th minute, the Reds had the ball for maybe three carries in all, and the Rebels never looked like running anything more than a one-out pass as they just kept smashing into the wall of maroon jerseys for no reward.
This was essentially the foundation for the Reds’ incredible defensive win; the more the Rebels ran at them, the more they knocked them over and invited them to do it again. And the Rebels did do it again. And again. And again.
Which the Reds duly fronted head-on, knocked them over, and got set for the next carry.
Both teams would have been watching the clock; the Rebels in the hope that they’d break through the Reds defence and have time to launch the next attacking raid, and the Reds too, knowing that every minute ticking over was one minute closer to them winning the game.
This was the sort of performance from which the Reds would’ve been hoping they could play their Round 8 match against the Force today. A massive confidence boost in their systems, and reassurance that the 38 points the Waratahs put on them in forty minutes last week was indeed just an off night.
But the Rebels will have a bye weekend off to stew on their decision making under pressure, their execution in the face of some excellent defence, and an inability to break open the Reds line.
It’s easy to make that criticism of the Rebels, but to me, this felt like a game in which they were really only allowed to play as well as the Reds allowed them.