Beaten finalists last year, the Reds will be looking to go one step better when their 2021 Super Rugby AU campaign begins tonight.
Having consistently struggled since their first title in 2011, Queensland’s young charges were able to turn promise into performances in the Australian competition, with only a seasoned Brumbies outfit preventing them from winning the final. With an extra year’s experience, it’s going to be a hard task stopping Brad Thorn’s men from going all the way this time around.
Much like the Brumbies, who we discussed yesterday, the Reds have kept the bulk of the playing group which made the final last year together.
The big signing is cross-code convert Suliasi Vunivalu, fresh off a second NRL premiership with the Melbourne Storm – although he’s hasn’t quite un-learnt the ways of a rugby league offseason yet. Chris Faeuai-Sautia makes way for the winger after an injury-plagued season, and prop JP Smith has left for America’s Major League Rugby.
Angus Blyth, Matt Faessler, Feao Fotuaika, Ben Grant, Harry Hoopert, Alex Mafi, Josh Nasser, Fraser McReight, Zane Nonggorr, Brandon Paenga-Amosa, Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, Angus Scott-Young, Ryan Smith, Tuania Taii Tualima, Taniela Tupou, Seru Uru, Sam Wallis, Harry Wilson, Liam Wright, Dane Zander
Jock Campbell, Hudson Creighton, Lawson Creighton, Filipo Daugunu, Ilasia Droasese, Josh Flook, Mac Grealy, Bryce Hegarty, Isaac Henry, Tate McDermott, James O’Connor, Hunter Paisami, Jordan Petaia, Moses Sorovi, Hamish Stewart, Kalani Thomas, Suliasi Vunivalu
Captain: Liam Wright (James O’Connor interim)
Coach: Brad Thorn
Unsurprisingly for the pre-season favourites, this Reds outfit has ample strengths in both the forward pack and backline.
Starting with the latter, they have line-breaking threats all the way from scrumhalf to fullback, and indeed have the most dangerous group of backs in the competition.
A line-up of Tate McDermott and James O’Connor in the halves, Hunter Paisami and Jordan Petaia in the centres, and Filipo Daugunu, Suliasi Vunivalu and Jock Campbell in the back three contains last year’s leading point-scorer, try-scorer and five other players all capable of slicing opposing defences on their own.
That was reflected in the statsheet last year; the competition leaders for clean breaks and defenders beaten were littered with Queenslanders:
It was no surprise, then, to see the Reds dominate most of the attacking team stats:
So, a lethal attacking team which was vulnerable without the ball? Not exactly.
Queensland also finished 2020 with the second-fewest points conceded behind the Brumbies, yet those numbers were somewhat misleading given the Reds shipped 45 – nearly a third of their season total – in a single game against the Waratahs.
After that shellacking, they went on a miserly run, giving up just three tries in their following four fixtures, including the preliminary final. That didn’t quite hold up against the Brumbies in the final, but it was still a mightily impressive shift from the Reds without the ball.
Much of that came down to the back-row quality Brad Thorn has at his disposal. The first-choice unit of Liam Wright, Fraser McReight and Harry Wilson is as good as it gets in Australian rugby, dangerous when the ball hits the ground thanks to their flankers’ on-ball prowess, efficient at the tackle, and strong with ball in hand.
The front row is also a damaging trio, particularly the tighthead/hooker combination of Taniela Tupou and Brandon Paenga-Amosa. With those two driving it forward, Queensland won 96 per cent of their scrums, a mark well clear of the rest of the competition.
For all their strengths, there are still flaws in this side.
The most obvious one is at the set-piece; while they were an excellent scrummaging side, the Queensland lineout was quite comfortably the worst in the comp. The Rebels had an excellent retention rate on their own throw (90%), and the Waratahs (86%), Brumbies (84%) and Force (83%) were all solid, but the Reds’ lineout success came in at a measly 77 per cent.
It cost them, too, never more pertinently than in the final, when missed throws both early on and late in the game cruelled their hopes of winning the decider.
This seems to be a system issue rather than a personnel one – the Wallabies’ lineout improved throughout the international season with Paenga-Amosa starting at hooker – and that indicates it is something which can be fixed for this campaign.
However, any improvements there will be hampered by Liam Wright’s absence. The skipper, who received the second-most lineouts for the Reds in 2020, picked up a syndesmosis injury in the team’s one and only trial against the Waratahs, sidelining him for ten weeks.
It’s not just in the lineout where Wright will be missed. His leadership is often cited as a critical factor in Queensland’s form last year, and the dynamic of the back row which worked so well for the Reds at the end of the season will change with him out.
Angus Scott-Young is a solid backup who will cover the set-piece well and bring increased physicality with and without the ball. But he isn’t the breakdown fetcher that Wright is, nor is he as mobile around the ground as his captain, and that will require a change in approach for the entire trio of loosies.
One other area the Reds need to have addressed in the off-season is their discipline. Too often they shot themselves in the foot with silly penalties, and finished the season with almost twice as many yellow cards (seven) as the next-worst Force and Waratahs (four apiece).
Much like the lineout, this issue reared its head in the final against the Brumbies, with the 12 total penalties conceded and Filipo Daugunu’s ten minutes in the bin proving costly in a game decided by just five points.
Clean up that area of their game, and they’ll become a much harder side to beat.
‘Prop’ and ‘player of the year’ aren’t generally two terms you’d associate together, particularly in Australian rugby, but they got to know each other last year thanks to Taniela Tupou.
The barnstorming front-rower was deservedly named the best player of Super Rugby AU following a season where he was regularly called on for 70- and 80-minute stints. For a man who has often been pigeon-holed as an impact player (although his time for the Wallabies last year didn’t do a lot to dispel that premise), it was an impressive effort indeed.
That he’s been named on the bench for tonight’s season opener is a clear indication that a repeat workload isn’t feasible this year, no doubt due to the short turnaround since the last Test of 2020 and the trans-Tasman fixtures due – pandemic permitting – to follow the Australian season.
Regardless of whether he’s playing the full game or not, the prop remains one of the Reds’ most important players, alongside flyhalf and fill-in captain James O’Connor.
Tupou embodies so much of what the Reds do well: his tackle-breaking surges and sheer power at the scrum are both key tenents of the side’s play.
But he also is a prime example of Queensland’s ill-discipline, guilty too often of giving away careless penalties. And while he was far, far more consistent even while putting in longer shifts last year, he can still drift in and out of games.
Because of how much time he spent on the field in 2020, there’s not a lot of depth behind him at tighthead, or at the very least not a lot of experienced depth. A long-term injury or loss of form, while not completely cruelling the side’s title hopes, would leave them in a decidedly precarious position.
Ultimately he’s a unique player in Australian rugby: a prop who excels at the scrum and can break the line on the run who is also blessed with explosive speed off the mark and far better skills with ball in hand than any front-rower has the right to be.
If the Reds find themselves in the final once again, you can be sure Tupou will have been central to them getting there.
Best attack in the competition. A settled playing list. Arguably the most stifling defence. A young group of players who will only improve after last year. It’s pretty hard to tip against the Reds in 2021.
There’s no doubt that losing their captain for the majority of the season is a massive blow. But even with Liam Wright missing, there’s more than enough talent in this team for them to stay right towards the top of the competition, and the skipper is due to return in time for the all-important finals.
In 2020, they were the ones watching on as the Brumbies lifted the trophy. If the Reds can improve their discipline and accuracy at the lineout, there’s no reason why it won’t be Queensland celebrating at the end of the final this year.