It wasn’t all Fraser McReight, not by any means. There were several titanic contributions, both up front and behind, to the Reds’ remarkable defensive triumph against the Rebels on Saturday evening.
But the young openside tyro epitomised the heart of the transformation from that limp first half at the Sydney Cricket Ground better than anyone else.
Defensive performances like the second period at Suncorp Stadium, in which the Reds gave up over 90 per cent of possession to the Rebels, made 143 tackles to only nine by their opponents, and held the ball up over their own goal-line on four separate occasions, will live long in the memory of all who either participated in or watched it. It may become an emotional centrepin for many seasons to come.
Defence like that binds people together at a deep, invisible level. They never forget their mates.
Head coach Brad Thorn paid tribute to the performance in suitably epic terms.
“It was Origin-esque, it was a Test match. Just kept fronting, just kept turning up.
“Queenslander. That’s what it was. If you summarise Queensland, that’s what it’s about. You can’t describe it except saying ‘Queenslander’.”
Thorn went on to name-check Michael Todd, who has stepped up from analyst to become the team’s defence coach in the absence of Peter Ryan.
“The job that Michael Todd does, I haven’t really heard anyone mention Michael because they probably don’t know him.
“He’s our defence coach. Peter was obviously doing a good job before COVID comes along. But Michael’s been our analyst for the last five years or so.
“We first worked together during NRC and he was helping me do some lineout work and I said ‘Why don’t you come out on the field and you can look after one line and I’ll look after the other?’
“He ended up coaching NRC, forwards coach, but his passion is ‘D’ and he’s taken that role and he’s doing some special stuff there.”
The raw stats say that the Reds completed almost three times as many tackles as the Rebels, made half the ball-carries, and built only one-quarter of the total rucks in the game.
They threw the ball into seven lineouts against 17 by the Rebels. They lost two of those throws as well. They had no ball, but still won the try count by three to none.
It is far too simplistic to believe that all of the Reds defensive woes against the Waratahs can be attributed to the unfortunate passing of Jordan Petaia’s father. Professional teams find ways to overcome such events, or even use them as fuel for the performance to come.
The Reds’ improvement was based primarily on sound selection, and vastly improved organisation. They moved Jock Campbell back to number 15 and replaced Scott Malolua with Tate McDermott at scrumhalf. They restored Fraser McReight to no.7 and shifted captain Liam Wright across to the blindside flank, which is the arrangement they should have had all along.
McReight responded with a game-high 22 tackles. The two lineout losses pale in comparison with the 16 turnovers in contact forced by the Reds defensive pressure. The restructured back-row combined for five forced fumbles (three by McReight), three fumble recoveries, and five turnovers at ruck or maul (four by McReight).
The biggest single difference from the SCG collapse was speed. McReight brought Michael Hooper-esque speed to the table. Here is that speed on the kick chase, forcing a tame kick into touch by Matt To’omua:
The Reds did not have that at the SCG. Here it is again, leading the line up in a critical situation close to the Reds’ goal-line in the first half:
McReight is so quick off the line that the Rebels ball-carrier feels the pressure and drops the ball, and the number seven is on hand to pick it up and make ground upfield.
The kick-chase, which had been such a shambles against New South Wales, was far better organised, with back-row strength evenly distributed to both sides of the field:
In the first example, the kick chase down the middle of the field has effectively closed down the returning options for Reece Hodge. Wright and Harry Wilson man the fort on one side, McReight guards the other. As soon as Hodge’s shoulders turn out towards McReight’s side, Jock Campbell promotes to cut off the wide play to the Queensland right.
In the second instance, the back-row is again split to both sides of the field, with the left promoting as soon as the Rebels kicker shapes to kick towards that side of the field.
The good organisation of the chase paid out a concrete dividend in the 27th minute for Campbell’s try via a kick return:
We get to see Campbell beating the follow-up tackle by Marika Koroibete, but we don’t see the quality of a chase which forced the Rebels to hoof the ball straight downfield on two successive plays:
The back row worked far better as a unit with McReight restored on the openside flank and Wright playing the kind of tighter role which he appears to relish. The idea that Wright cannot play this role was demolished at a driving lineout close to the Reds’ goal-line:
Wright is the tip of the spear which has penetrated the Rebels’ blocking and split two of the main drivers (Matt Philip and Pone Fa’amausili) away from the ball-carrier (Isi Naisarani). The ball is exposed and that is the cue for Wilson and McReight to move in for the kill:
Throughout the match, Wright and McReight demonstrated an instinctive understanding of the ‘tackle and jackal’ combination, usually with Wright tackling and McReight in over the top of the ball:
The second of the two examples is particularly instructive. McReight has just made a tackle on the previous play, but he’s already back on his feet and ready to pounce as Wright sticks Naisarani. If there is no turnover by knock-on, there will be one via McReight’s on-ball attempt.
The smooth dovetailing of roles extended to include number 8 Harry Wilson:
And also Angus Scott-Young when he came on to replace Wilson for the last quarter of the game:
McReight has just completed one tackle when he runs around the back of the ruck in time for a classic double involvement on the very next play off a solid tackle by Scott-Young.
This kind of epic work rate quickly becomes infectious and generates the same kind of desire in surrounding players – if they didn’t have it already. Here is Wilson, first pinning Billy Meakes behind the gainline, then getting up to make a second hit on Rebels prop Cameron Orr:
In complete contrast to the previous week at the SCG, not one of the Reds’ forwards was bigger than his counterpart in the Rebels pack – not even Taniela Tupou up against the monstrous Pone Fa’amausili.
The difference was, if anything, even more heavily accented in the back row, where the Rebels fielded two big flankers in Brad Wilkin and Josh Kemeny, bookending their Wallaby number 8 Isi Naisarani.
The Reds had the smallest forward on the pitch in Fraser McReight, but he and his mates (Liam Wright and Harry Wilson) ran rings around their opposite numbers with their speed and sustained work-rate in defence.
The Rebels dominated the lineout and possession of the ball, but the Reds won the try-count 3-0 and made the final score short-handed, with Brandon Paenga-Amosa off the field for the final ten minutes of the game.
If the match had gone on for another ten minutes, it was the Reds, not the Rebels, who would have scored again. If the last two weeks have proved anything, they have proved that it is that the rapier, not the bludgeon, which wins most top rugby games in the professional era.
The Reds had the speed, and they had the organisation to make their quickness really count. They produced the most heroic defensive display by any Queensland side in recent memory.
The young players will feed off that memory and their playing careers will be elevated by it. In the short term, it will have done the Wallabies prospects of the likes of Harry Wilson, Liam Wright and Fraser McReight no harm at all.