Fraser McReight has laid down the marker ahead of the Reds’ home clash against Michael Hooper’s Waratahs, starring in his side’s important 31-17 win over the Western Force in Brisbane.
Hooper’s heir apparent was brilliant on Saturday, scoring a double and being denied twice too.
But more than his two tries was his work across the field in the loose, particularly on the defensive side of the ball.
Where Hooper struggled to get his hands on the ball against the Highlanders on Friday night, McReight stole balls clean from the deck and constantly timed his attack on the exposed ball like a seagull to a chip.
That’s not to say Hooper was poor. Far from it, in fact. But McReight was easily the Reds’ best and continually influenced the course of the game like he has for two years.
Wallabies coach Eddie Jones will have loved what he saw from McReight. While the Wallabies can’t start both in the land of the giants, the Queenslander’s ability to get on the ball is something that can’t have gone unnoticed.
McReight’s first-half double set up the match, with the Reds opening up a 21-5 lead at half-time.
While the Force managed to score first in the second half through captain Michael Wells, another missed conversion from Bryce Hegarty hurt the visitors’ chances of exerting pressure on the Reds.
After surviving a number of attacking raids, the Force’s hopes were all but gone when debutant prop George Blake crashed over in the 65th minute in what proved to be the telling blow.
While the Force never went away as flying English winger Zach Kibirige grabbed his second by intercepting Tom Lynagh, a poor scrum, an ability to turnover over possession on the deck and a pressured lineout meant the Reds grabbed a crucial four points.
Reds skipper Liam Wright was naturally delighted by the hard fought win.
“The first half was pretty nice,” he said.
“We stuck to our game plan a bit more, we didn’t put them away to the sword but that’s credit to the Force, they really stick in there and really score a lot of their points in that last 20 based on fitness and having a real crack.
“We’ll take a win against a classy side.”
Force skipper Michael Wells lamented his side’s discipline, where they were smashed up front at the scrum without key Test front-row trio Tom Robertson, Folau Fainga’a and Santiago Medrano.
“I probably have to moderate myself a little bit because it hurts. I really don’t like losing and we don’t come to lose,” he said.
“Discipline hurt us again. We started really good, scored early points, but they got back in the game by giving away penalties. That was the same story last week, so our discipline is the thing hurting us the most.”
Early on and it looked like the Force had to come play.
Kibirige, who has starred in his first season as the Force since arriving from England, scored a superb early try for the visitors after Sam Spink got his head through the defensive line and offloaded to Chase Tiatia.
While James O’Connor saved the day by intercepting Tiatia’s pass inside his own 22, Jordan Petaia coughed the ball up and the Force immediately sent it wide to Felix Kalapu, who managed to draw in two defenders and find Kibirige who spectacularly grounded the ball out wide in seventh minute.
But for the next 20 minutes it was all the home side.
Returning Force flanker Carlo Tizzano did his best to slow the ball down at the ruck, but the visitors were smashed at the breakdown as the Reds offloaded at will.
It led to McReight scoring two tries in seven minutes as he combined beautifully with his crafty halfback Tate McDermott, who was in the thick of everything.
Unable to slow the Reds down, the Force couldn’t assert any pressure at the set-piece either. Their scrum was smashed and it meant the visitors struggled for territory.
Jordan Petaia was denied a try out wide after the TMO couldn’t find evidence to overturn Reuben Keane’s on-field decision of no try after being blinded. Not long after McReight was denied a quick-fire hat-trick after a little forward pass was found, too.
Eventually the Reds did have their third, as Matt Faessler continued his strong season by scoring in the 32nd minute.
The Force had a couple of late chances in the first half, but chasing the game they went for the corner. THey left with nothing.
While Wells cleverly found his way to the tryline in the 54th minute, the visitors’ scrum woes continued while Tizzano found no love at the ruck.
Both sides traded tries in the final 20 minutes, but Lynagh’s penalty in the 78th minute sealed a comfortable 14-point win.
The victory saw the Reds move back into sixth spot on 19 points, two points above the Waratahs on 17. The Force, meanwhile, slipped to 10th on 13 points after the Rebels earlier hung on to beat Moana Pasifika.