Just how far have the Queensland Reds fallen? It is the biggest single conundrum in Australian provincial rugby at the present moment. The golden boys from the Gold Coast were sitting pretty after the domestic portion of Super Rugby Pacific 2022 had finished.
They had reeled off seven wins from their first eight games, punctuated by the exclamation mark of resounding 21-7 victory over their bitter local rivals the Brumbies on 2nd April at the Suncorp. The sun was shining, the wind was in their sails, and the course looked set fair for the finals.
Shuffle the clock on a couple of short months, and a very different picture has emerged. Queensland has lost five of its last six matches and dropped to seventh in the table, behind both the Brumbies and the Waratahs. The Reds suddenly look rudderless and becalmed in the face of those fluttering black flags on the horizon.
They have acquired an unwanted distinction. With both Force and Rebels winning in the final round, Queensland has become the only Australian franchise which failed to win a game against one of the five original regions from New Zealand during the regular SRP season.
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The Reds still had most of the cards falling out in their favour over the first three rounds of cross-border competition, and that is where they lost the plot. They played all of the matches in Australia (the first at AAMI stadium in Melbourne, the next two at the Suncorp), against the least threatening Kiwi franchises – in order, the Hurricanes, the Chiefs and the Highlanders.
The kneejerk reaction from the lazy-boy armchair is ‘Look at the number of injuries the Reds have sustained!’ Does it stand up under scrutiny? In the first two games, Queensland was able to field two starting XVs close to full-strength: Harry Hoopert, Richie Asiata and Taniela Tupou in the front row, with Ryan Smith and Angus Blyth behind them, and Angus Scott-Young, Fraser McReight and Harry Wilson in the back row; Tate McDermott at number 9, Hunter Paisami and Hamish Stewart in the centres, and a mix of Jock Campbell, Suli Vunivalu, Josh Flook and Filipo Daugunu in the back three. That list looks pretty good to the casual observer.
The only significant absentee is James O’Connor at number 10, with the inexperienced Lawson Creighton picked to take his place. Even after the Tongan Thor was lost during the game against the Chiefs, the Reds could still put a respectable unit on to the pitch for the game against the Highlanders, the lowest-ranked of all the Kiwi sides. That Landers team was missing key players of its own, like Shannon Frizell and Jona Nareki.
Injuries are the easy way out, and there has to be significant doubt that a shooter as straight as Reds’ head coach Brad Thorn would buy into it as an excuse:
“I think we were five games in and I got interviewed and I wasn’t happy about the Australia AU competition. Like I said, we were playing the Waratahs, 19 turnovers, yet we were winning. We won five straight.
“But we’re looking for quality rugby, and New Zealand teams are showing if you turn over the ball, you have some lapses in D, boom try – another try. That’s why I was unhappy five games into the AU season, because I know the reality. I’ve played it, I know what it is, and that’s why I was saying we had to play the Kiwis.
“If you look at it a couple of years ago, the margins were under 10 points if we lost. It’s important that we play them, you want to play the best.”
Those were the prophetic words of the Queensland head honcho exactly one calendar year ago, after the finish of the regular Super Rugby Trans-Tasman season.
In the meantime, Thorn has repaired some of the damage. The average 19 point losing margin against New Zealand teams in Trans-Tasman 2021 has dropped to just over 12 points one year later, with only one blow-out against the Blues; the average of tries conceded from six per game in 2021, to four and a half in 2022. That is still too high, but it is an improvement.
Dig deeper into the raw data, and you find that another pattern has taken shape. As I suggested in last week’s Coach’s Corner , the two most successful Australian sides against Kiwi opposition in 2022, the Brumbies and the Waratahs, play the game a different way.
Take a look at the way they score their tries: well over 60% from lineout, and less than 20% from counter-attack. The Reds are closer to a typical New Zealand side like the Blues, who tend to make their scores from both sources equally – exactly 43% from each platform for the Blues, 41% from each for the Reds.
The big problem for Queensland is the weakness of their lineout, which ranks just above the Fijian Drua and Moana Pasifika at the bottom of the table with a lowly 79% retention rate. Compare that with the class leaders in Aussie (the Rebels at over 88%) and New Zealand (the Highlanders at 91%), and the Brumbies and Waratahs, who both weigh in at 87%. You can feel the difference.
Half of all the tries scored in Super Rugby Pacific 2022 start from a lineout. If you do not have a reliable set-piece, you cannot hope to occupy those crucial positions in and around the opponent’s 22 (the so-called red zone) for long enough to make it count.
The Reds’ interim captain Tate McDermott, who has provided tremendous value with his honest and often heart-felt post-match interviews, referred it to the failing indirectly after the weekend loss to the Crusaders:
“Really proud of how we managed to claw back into it and we’ll take that going forward. Not too many teams get two cracks at the Crusaders in a row and we’ll take the positives out of that game because we’ve got to.
“It was as simple as holding the ball, when we stuck to things better as a team and worked hard and put phases together, we looked really good … but it’s about doing that for longer periods of time.”
If Brad Thorn’s Queensland charges want to have a chance of upsetting the same opponents on Friday evening, he needs to send his salvage team straight to the lineout, and to the set-piece in the red zone.
The rot began to set at the first Queensland red zone lineout in the 13th minute, on the edge of the Crusaders’ 22:
The Reds had already won ball from this set-up by throwing to the obvious target (Seru Uru) with his lifters already locked on at the front. In this case, the Queensland caller Ryan Smith opts for the typical second play in this rotation, with Uru dropping out as a decoy and the ball hitting the player behind him, Angus Scott-Young.
Scott Barrett does not give himself up to the fake by Uru but ‘mirrors’ Queensland movement instead, turning to boost for Cullen Grace. That spells immediate trouble for the Reds, because Scott-Young lacks the natural spring of his opponent:
Angus Scott-Young’s lack of speed off the ground caused the next Reds’ malfunction a few minutes later.
In this instance the Reds were saved by a Crusaders’ knock forward, only to give the ball back promptly from the ensuing scrum:
Harry Wilson tries for the low percentage offload to Scott-Young on second phase, the ball goes loose and the Crusaders pick it up. There is no chance to spend time in the opponent’s 22 and build pressure on the home defence, the kind of pressure which leads to points, penalties and yellow cards for persistent infringement.
Queensland responded to the competition at the lineout by looking for smart gadget plays, or quick tapped penalties to avoid the orthodox lineout entirely:
In the first instance, Ryan Smith calls for a quick exchange between Harry Wilson and Richie Asiata around the front of the line, but Wilson’s pass is far too clumsy and that is another turnover scrum. In the second example, Tate McDermott avoids the lineout completely only five metres from the goal-line, but his two supports (Vunivalu and Campbell) are too slow and Leicester Fainga’anuku is able to wrestle the ball away.
When Queensland went to the back of the line, they were no more successful:
The last two clips are particularly instructive. Although Queensland recover the ball from Asiata’s unintended overthrow, the damage has already been done. The throw will go down in the stats book as a ‘win’, but it is a loss in reality because all attacking structure has been lost.
Harry Wilson is rocked back on second phase, and the Reds are still struggling to pass the 22 three phases later, when Dane Zander is robbed of the ball in the tackle and the Crusaders break out down their left-hand side.
Even when the Reds finally scored a try from a short-range lineout late on in the match, it came from a broken set-piece rescued by great hands down the short-side from the maroon back-row:
Again, there is no pressure from structure applied over time, but rather from instinctive skills beautifully executed by Connor Vest and Fraser McReight.
The Reds had found their stairway to red zone heaven around the hour mark, keeping the ball for two minutes and 15 phases from a lineout deep in the Crusaders’ 22 – eating the clock, exhausting the D and racking up the full seven pointer:
Don’t believe the folk who would tell you that the Reds’ problems against New Zealand opposition are all the result of a bad run of injuries. It is really only James O’Connor and Taniela Tupou who have been missing from action for any length of time, and the best teams know how to close ranks and lock shields even when key players are missing.
Queensland also enjoyed the bonus of playing the three weakest Kiwi sides first, with all of the games in Australia and two of them at the Suncorp. There are no excuses, but the good news is that plenty of fixes can be made in time for the return fixture in Christchurch, at the knockout stage of the tournament.
One of the very best ways to combine defence with the opportunity to score points is by occupying space and time in and around the opponent’s red zone. Once you enter the opposition 22, do not leave until you come away with concrete profits.
Like the Brumbies and Waratahs, the Reds have to be able to tighten the tourniquet and apply pressure progressively from those situations. They need to be sure they can win nine out of every 10 throws that they deliver to the lineout, keep the ball and sit on positions until the D begins to squeak.
It may come through points, it may come via penalties and yellow cards, but there will be a snowball effect. Do that, and the unthinkable may yet occur – an Australian upset win in the citadel of Kiwi rugby, and redemption in red.