How far have the Queensland Reds fallen? It’s the biggest conundrum in Australian provincial rugby right now. The Gold Coast golden boys were well seated after the end of the domestic game of Super Rugby Pacific 2022.
They had picked up seven wins in their first eight games, punctuated by the exclamation point of a resounding 21-7 win over bitter local rivals the Brumbies on 2n/a April at Suncorp. The sun was shining, the wind was blowing through their sails and the course seemed set for the final.
Move the clock back a few months and a very different picture emerged. Queensland have lost five of their last six matches and have fallen to seventh in the table, behind the Brumbies and Waratahs. The Reds suddenly seem rudderless and calmed in the face of those black flags flying on the horizon.
They have acquired an undesirable distinction. With Force and Rebels winning in the final round, Queensland became the only Australian franchise to fail to win a match against any of New Zealand’s five home regions during the SRP regular season. .
The Reds still had most of the cards in their favor in the first three rounds of cross-border competition, and that’s where they lost the plot. They have played every game in Australia (the first at AAMI Stadium in Melbourne, the next two at Suncorp), against the less threatening Kiwi franchises – in order, the Hurricanes, Chiefs and Highlanders.
The knee-jerk reaction from the lazy chair is ‘Look at the number of injuries the Reds have!’ Does it stand up to scrutiny? In the first two games, Queensland were able to field two starting XVs near 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 back row; Tate McDermott at number 9, Hunter Paisami and Hamish Stewart in centers, and a mix of Jock Campbell, Suli Vunivalu, Josh Flook and Filipo Daugunu in the bottom three. This list looks pretty good to the casual observer.
The only significant absentee is James O’Connor at number 10, with the inexperienced Lawson Creighton chosen to take his place. Even after Tongan Thor’s defeat in the game against the Chiefs, the Reds could still put a respectable unit on the pitch for the game against the Highlanders, the lowest ranked of all Kiwi sides. This Landers team lacked its own key players, like Shannon Frizell and Jona Nareki.
Injuries are the easy way out, and there must be significant doubt that a shooter as straight as Reds head coach Brad Thorn would buy into that as an excuse:
“I think we were five games and I was interviewed and I was not happy with the Australia AU competition. Like I said, we were playing the Waratahs, 19 turnovers, but we were winning. We have won five times in a row.
“But we’re looking for quality rugby, and the New Zealand teams show that if you turn the ball over you have errors in D, boom try – another try. That’s why I was unhappy five games after the start of the AU season, because I know the reality. I played it, I know what it is, and that’s why I said it was necessary to play against the Kiwis.
“If you look at a few years ago the margins were less than 10 points if we lost. It’s important that we play them, you want to play the best.
These were the prophetic words of the Queensland boss exactly a year ago after the Super Rugby Trans-Tasman regular season ended.
In the meantime, Thorn has repaired some of the damage. The average losing margin of 19 points against New Zealand sides in Trans-Tasman 2021 has fallen to just over 12 points a year later, with just one blowout against the Blues; the average of tries conceded goes from six per match in 2021, to four and a half in 2022. It’s still too high, but it’s an improvement.
Dig deeper into the raw data and you will find that another pattern has taken shape. As I suggested in Coach’s Corner last week, Australia’s two most successful teams against Kiwi opposition in 2022, the Brumbies and Waratahs, play the game in a different way.
Take a look at how they score their tries: well over 60% from the lineout and under 20% from the counterattack. The Reds are closer to a typical New Zealand side like the Blues, who tend to score from both sources equally – exactly 43% from each platform for the Blues, 41% from each for the Reds .
The big problem for Queensland is their weak roster, which ranks just above Fijian Drua and Moana Pasifika at the bottom of the table with a low retention rate of 79%. Compare that with the class leaders in Australia (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 tries scored in Super Rugby Pacific 2022 come from a lineout. If you don’t have a reliable free kick, you can’t expect to hold those crucial positions in and around the opponent’s 22 (the so-called red zone) long enough for it to count.
Interim Reds captain Tate McDermott, who provided enormous value with his honest and often candid post-match interviews, spoke indirectly about the failure after the weekend loss to the Crusaders:
“Really proud of how we’ve managed to get back to it and we’ll continue to do so in the future. Few teams get back to back cracks against the Crusaders and we’ll take the positives out of this game because we have to. .
“It was as simple as holding the ball, when we stuck to things better as a team and worked hard and set up phases, we looked really good… but it’s about doing it during longer periods.”
If Brad Thorn’s Queensland charges are to stand a chance of upsetting the same opponents on Friday night, he needs to send his rescue team straight to the lineout and free-kick in the red zone.
The rot started to set in during Queensland’s first red zone line-up in the 13e minute, at the limit of 22 of the crusaders:
The Reds had already won the ball from this setup by throwing towards the obvious target (Seru Uru) with his pushers already locked in front. In this case, Queensland caller Ryan Smith goes for the typical second play of this rotation, with Uru dropping as a decoy and the ball hitting the player behind him, Angus Scott-Young.
Scott Barrett doesn’t indulge in Uru’s fake but instead ‘mirrors’ Queensland’s move, turning to Cullen Grace. This means immediate problems for the Reds, as Scott-Young lacks his opponent’s natural spring:
Angus Scott-Young’s lack of ground speed caused the following Reds to malfunction minutes later.
In this case, the Reds were saved with a forward kick from the Crusaders, only to return the ball quickly from the ensuing scrum:
Harry Wilson tries the low percentage offload on Scott-Young in phase two, the ball breaks loose and the Crusaders get it back. There’s no chance of spending time in the opposition’s 22 and putting pressure on the home defence, the kind of pressure that leads to points, penalties and yellow cards for persistent infringement.
Queensland responded to the competition in the line-up by looking for clever gimmicky plays or quick penalties to avoid the orthodox line-up altogether:
At first, Ryan Smith calls for a quick exchange between Harry Wilson and Richie Asiata down the front of the line, but Wilson’s pass is way too clunky and it’s another spinning scrum. In the second example, Tate McDermott completely avoids the lineout just five yards from the goal line, but his two supports (Vunivalu and Campbell) are too slow and Leicester Fainga’anuku is able to win the ball back.
When Queensland went to the back of the queue, they were no more successful:
The last two clips are particularly instructive. Although Queensland win the ball from Asiata’s unintentional knockdown, the damage is already done. The throw will stay in the stats book as a “win”, but it’s actually a loss because all attack structure has been lost.
Harry Wilson was rocked in the second phase, and the Reds still struggled to get past the 22 three phases later, when Dane Zander had the ball stolen in the tackle and the Crusaders lost their left side.
Even when the Reds finally scored a try on a close-range lineout late in the game, it came from a broken set-piece saved by big hands on the short side of the maroon back row:
Again, there’s no pressure of structure applied over time, but rather instinctive skills beautifully executed by Connor Vest and Fraser McReight.
The Reds had found their stairway to red-zone heaven around the hour mark, holding the ball for two minutes and 15 phases of a lineout deep in the Crusaders’ 22 – eating the clock, wearing down the D and accumulating the full seven pointers:
Don’t believe people who tell you that the Reds’ problems against New Zealand opponents are all the result of a series of injuries. It’s really only James O’Connor and Taniela Tupou who have been out of action for a while, and the best teams know how to close ranks and lock in shields even when key players are out.
Queensland also enjoyed the advantage of playing the three weakest Kiwi teams first, with all games in Australia and two of them at Suncorp. There are no excuses, but the good news is that there are plenty of fixes that can be made in time for the second leg in Christchurch in the knockout stage of the tournament.
One of the best ways to combine defense with the ability to score points is to occupy space and time in and around the opponent’s red zone. Once you enter Opposition 22, don’t leave until you come back with tangible benefits.
Like the Brumbies and Waratahs, the Reds need to be able to tighten the withers and gradually apply pressure from these situations. They need to be sure they can win nine out of 10 pitches they deliver to the lineout, hold the ball and sit positions until the D starts to creak.
It can go through points, it can go through penalties and yellow cards, but there will be a snowball effect. Do that, and the unthinkable can still happen – an Australian upset victory in the citadel of Kiwi rugby, and redemption in red.