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Opinion

Three talking points from the Super Rugby AU qualifying final

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14th September, 2020
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One of the better Australian derbies in years, and easily the best Super Rugby AU match to date saw the Queensland Reds win the qualifying final over the Melbourne Rebels, and have now won through to Saturday night’s final against the Brumbies in Canberra.

It wasn’t without cost, with the Reds finishing with no healthy backs left on the bench, outside backs Jordan Petaia and Chris Feauai-Sautia not making it through to halftime.

The Reds will be sweating on Petaia especially, who appeared to take a heavy head knock as well as a shoulder complaint, and will be their key component to shutting down Tevita Kuridrani after being overlooked by the Wallabies selectors, and with numerous rugby fans having his rugby obituary at the ready.

It was exactly the lift in intensity we hoped to see for a knockout final, and here’s what got us talking from the weekend.

Rebels played all the rugby, just not at the right end of the field
Though the possession ended up at 50 per cent apiece, there was one aspect of the territory split that was always going to work against the Rebels.

Just under half of the game – 43.6 per cent – was played between halfway and their 22. Of their share of possession, the Rebels only enjoyed about a third of it in the Reds’ half.

Both teams were always going to kick a lot, and 47 kicks between them confirm that. But while Melbourne played a lot more rugby and forced the opposition backs to make more tackles, the biggest problem was where that rugby was being played.

The carries numbers show that the Rebels’ back three combined for well over 300 metres between them, while Dane Haylett-Petty and Andrew Kellaway kicked five and three times, respectively. They did a lot of running back from their own half, but also kicked a lot, comfortably more than their opposites.

The visitors created some opportunities through their counterattack, but it also shows the Reds were pretty happy to let them run all the way back, or run it back part of the way and then kick. The hosts in reply just kicked it back and kept Melbourne on their own side of halfway. The Rebels had a gameplan to test the Reds, they just couldn’t do it at the right end of the field.

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The Queensland forwards and particularly their back row have got a lot of credit for their surge in form in the second half of the season, but their tactical kicking game has been every bit as crucial in their run to the final this weekend.

James O'Connor

James O’Connor’s kicking has been excellent. (Photo by Patrick HAMILTON / AFP via Getty Images)

The numbers that didn’t help Naisarani at the selection table
Form isn’t something that can be measured with raw statistics, no matter how much we might try to make a case. But stats do highlight trends which can then be used as a basis from which to make a judgement on form.

Anyone watching Isi Naisarani enjoy a points victory over his opposite Harry Wilson would have scanned down Dave Rennie’s 44-man Wallabies squad yesterday and realised the big number eight’s name was not listed between Fraser McReight’s and James O’Connor’s. And then they would have then wondered whether what they saw the night before was a dream.

It wasn’t, but it doesn’t tell the full story on Naisarani’s Super Rugby AU campaign for the Rebels. For one thing, it was only the third time in six games where you could argue he achieved a moral victory over his opposite. The qualifying final was Naisarani’s best for the Rebels this campaign by some distance, which undoubtedly was a reason Rennie felt he needed to look elsewhere.

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Naisarani’s seven metres per carry were huge for the Rebels, but that also represents his biggest impact with ball in hand by some margin. In his five games prior, he’d been operating in the range of 2.5 to 4.1.

In truth, his eight runs against the Reds were well under his 13 to 17 norm. His tackle numbers and tackle efficiency have been consistent, and so have his defenders beaten and offloads: one of each per game on average.

Eight turnovers conceded, ten penalties conceded and one yellow card in six games can’t have helped his cause. One and a half turnovers and nearly two penalties a game is not something a coach would want to see.

He has got better the more he’s played since returning from injury, and perhaps that’s where the general feeling of his unlucky omission comes from. Unless the coach has an overseas back-row ace to produce from his sleeve?

The travel factor that Thorn’s words alone can’t overcome
“We went down five weeks ago and with the team, I’ve never really carried on about us travelling away,” Reds coach Brad Thorn said of the travel factor ahead of the trip to Canberra this weekend.

“The mindset from day dot, we’d go to South Africa and Argentina and we always talked about we travel well and from the performances, even in that first year, I think we went down to the Hurricanes by four points that year. There were other games that didn’t faze us.

“You’re just best to be prepared for whatever it is, it’s not an excuse and it’s about performance and it’s just having a good mindset and getting down there and competing.”

That’s all fine and good, but the Reds’ trips to South Africa and Argentina weren’t done on the morning of the game.

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Brad Thorn

(Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

By our count, there have been eleven instances of a team travelling on the day of a game where that travel involved buses at one end at least and a flight in between. The home team won ten of them, with the only win for a team on a day trip the Waratahs’ victory over the Force on the Gold Coast in Round 7.

Even the Reds themselves fell short travelling to Canberra in Round 5, the match which they lost to a Brumbies penalty goal after the bell. But after a physical and emotional game like that, they followed up with a trip to Sydney and were on the end of the second-biggest losing margin in Super Rugby AU.

After a physical and intense qualifying final that had to have drained their players – and did leave an injury toll – they have to do another buses and flight day trip to Canberra, the longest travel leg in the competition.

If attitude and mindset can overcome that, then Brad Thorn will be a better coach than all his critics are willing to admit.