With Super Rugby now just days away, we preview each of the teams in the competition ahead of the new season. First up, the Reds.
Following a rough year in 2014 the Reds will be looking to a number of new faces combined with experienced stars to rally together and get them back into the Super Rugby playoffs.
Richard Graham’s first year in charge was far from easy in the post-Ewen McKenzie era, with Reds fans likely to be less sympathetic this time around. Can they work their way back to the top in Australia?
Last Year: The Reds finished in their lowest position since 2009 when they ended up in 13th place at the end of the regular season, crippled by injuries to top personnel. Overall the Reds won 30 less league points than in 2013, when they were knocked out in the playoffs by the Crusaders.
Defence was a huge issue, conceding the second-highest number of points in the competition with 493. In the end the Reds lost 11 of their 16 games, including a run of just one victory in seven matches. Their squad depth and defensive frailties were exposed as the 2011 champions just never got going. The 34-3 loss to the Waratahs in the final regular season game was a fitting endnote.
This year: In terms of personnel, the Reds have certainly cleaned out their cupboard a bit. Established squad players from the last few years including Rod Davies, Ben Lucas, Mike Harris, Albert Anae and Dom Shipperley are all gone. In their place arrive a mix of experienced stars and young talents, with ex-league star Karmichael Hunt and James O’Connor leading the way.
In 2015 they will head on the road to the Highlanders and Crusaders, while a two-week stretch in South Africa against the Bulls and Cheetahs comes before they jet back to Brisbane to face the Hurricanes. It could be a three-week period that defines their season.
Having home advantage against the Sharks and Chiefs also is a real bonus. Without a significant overhaul in their defensive structure however, it’s hard to see the Reds improving on last year’s lowly tackle percentage stats and, as a result, their table position. Add in the 10-12 week absence from the start of the season of Quade Cooper and their chances of success feel even slimmer. Pride though is at stake, with James Horwill and Will Genia among others moving on at the end of year. They have been part of a great era for the Reds culminating in that title four years ago, and will want to go out on a high.
Key Players: Karmichael Hunt hasn’t played Union since his days with Biarritz, when he was part of the side that reached the European Cup Final, (although his time in France can hardly be considered a success). The fact that he has been thrust with the vice-captaincy without playing a game for the Reds yet speaks volumes of the respect for him within the camp.
Adding to the Reds’ leadership core as well will be Adam Thomson, the former All Black who has returned from Japan. The Reds made a similar move with Dan Braid years ago and it turned out to be a masterstroke – so Graham will be hoping for a similar effect from the athletic back-rower.
Players to watch: Surrounded by Wallabies in the second row, David McDuling has waited a long time to play Super Rugby but finally grabbed his chance in the 2014, two years after first being named in the Reds’ Super Rugby squad. After two knee reconstructions, this is his moment. Out in the backs, with Cooper absent the first thought was that James O’Connor would step in at ten. Not so fast.
Duncan Paia’aua, the cross-code signing from Brisbane Broncos, appears to set take the fly-half role at just 20 while Cooper recovers – his progress will be intriguing. Paia’aua certainly has plenty of weapons to use out wide, which is where Samu Kerevi comes in. The real positive to come out of last season for the Reds was watching Kerevi tear up opposition defences and showcase his talent. His first full year should be special.
Players in: Adam Thomson (Canon Eagles, Japan), Hendrik Tui (Suntory Sungoliath, Japan), Duncan Paia’aua (Brisbane Broncos, League), Campbell Magnay (Queensland Country), James O’Connor (Toulon, France), Karmichael Hunt (Gold Coast FC, AFL), Taniela Tupou (Sacred Heart College)
Players out:Albert Anae (Benetton Treviso, Italy), Rod Davies (Biarritz, France), Mike Harris (Rebels), Ben Lucas (Montpellier, France), Jono Owen (Grenoble, France), Jonah Placid (Rebels), Dom Shipperley (Rebels), Aidan Toua (Agen, France).
Prospects: Depending on how well Hunt and O’Connor gel in the backs, the Reds could become an incredibly exciting side to watch again. Losing Cooper so early and for so long is a blow, but Paia’aua has potential and will be thrust into the deep end. If James Horwill, Rob Simmons and captain James Slipper can get the pack firing, the Reds may challenge the Waratahs and Brumbies in the Australian Conference, but it might be a year too soon for such a leap. An improvement on last year’s poor 13th place is certainly possible. Mid-table.
Fri, 13 Feb v Brumbies (GIO Stadium, Canberra)
Sat, 21 Feb v Force (Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane)
Fri, 27 Feb v Highlanders (Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin)
Sat, 7 Mar v Waratahs (Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane)
Fri, 14 Mar v Brumbies (Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane)
Round 6: BYE
Fri, 27 Mar v Lions (Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane)
Fri, 3 Apr v Rebels (AAMI Park, Melbourne)
Sat, 11 Apr v Bulls (Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria)
Sat, 18 Apr v Cheetahs (Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein)
Sun, 26 Apr v Hurricanes (Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane)
Round 12: BYE
Fri, 8 May v Crusaders (AMI Stadium, Christchurch)
Fri, 15 May v Rebels (Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane)
Fri, 22 May v Sharks (Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane)
Sat, 30 May v Force (nib Stadium, Perth)
Sat, 6 Jun v Chiefs (Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane)
Sat, 13 Jun v Waratahs (ANZ Stadium, Sydney)