Brad Thorn’s Ballymore shake-up enters its second season, with the young head coach looking to build on his first season that started with some promise and fizzled away.
After a horror start in Melbourne, the Reds won three straight to almost equal the win tallies in each of the previous three seasons (2017- 4, 2016- 3, 2015- 4). The bad news was that early form quickly dissipated and they went 3-9 for the rest of the season, with a thrashing at the hands of the Sunwolves in Tokyo a notable low point.
It would be folly to expect the Reds to compete for the Super Rugby title this year, and while the players might believe, history suggests otherwise. There have been only five instances of teams jumping more than eight places between seasons, so for the 13th-placed Reds, just obtaining a winning season would be a good start.
In 2010, the year before the Reds’ maiden title, the team went 8-5 having gone 3-10 in 2009, achieving their first winning season since 2002. It is this kind of result that will offer hope to those who have sat through five seasons of ineptitude. Just win more than you lose and prove that this squad is going in the right direction.
Thorn’s cultural rebuild of the Reds has seen fan favourite Quade Cooper officially shipped out (although he didn’t play at all last year), ex-captain James Slipper join the Brumbies and the troubled Karmichael Hunt link with the Waratahs.
Given the results of the side in 2017 when all three last played, the impact of losing such high-profile players hasn’t been material when it comes to winning.
Despite improving in the win column in Thorn’s first year, the team finished 12th in points scored, 13th in tries scored and second-to-last in line breaks, offloads, and passes. There are still major concerns over the Reds attacking ability, which will hopefully be improved by the arrival of new attack coach Jim McKay, which was widely regarded as an astute signing.
The side has youthful exuberance that can bring much-needed spark to the Reds attack, both young halfbacks Tate McDermott and Moses Sorovi are livewires that are dangerous in and around the ruck channels.
The problem is they haven’t learned how to control the tempo and play at the speed required to break down the defences of top Super Rugby teams. Sorovi, in particular, is too slow in recycling and is indecisive at times, despite being a danger man when taking on the line.
The Reds young flyhalf Hamish Stewart has often played territory as a first priority, kicking away a lot of possession even in the pre-season trials. Often this seems to be because of a lack of shape, which is a bad omen.
The young 10 was shielded away from handling much last year, averaging 18.4 possessions a game compared to the Wallabies incumbent flyhalf Bernard Foley (41.7). He hasn’t shown much inkling when it comes to playmaking, ranking in the bottom five in the position at creating or making line breaks on a per run and per pass attempt basis. The lack of impact hasn’t come with stability either, Stewart has a top five turnover ratio, based on his number of touches, in the position.
You can expect mistakes from such a young flyhalf, but this must come with an upside to be worth the risk. For a player who has been thrown into Super Rugby before he was 20, the question has to be asked whether the Reds will end up with Jake McIntyre 2.0.
In just a 20-minute cameo in the last trial, Isaac Lucas showed his ability with a brilliant solo break on the counter, beating a number of Chiefs defenders on a scintillating break. The youngest Lucas brother, also a flyhalf by trade, could be a breakout find for the Reds and could also fill time at fullback.
Captain Kerevi is a known quantity in both attack and defence – on his day one of the best talents in the competition with ball-in-hand, but also a shaky defender with a high missed tackle rate. As the new leader of the team, Kerevi will hopefully lead by example on both sides of the ball.
The Reds backs as a unit were some of the worst defenders as a group statistically last year, with Aidan Toua, Filipo Daugunu, Duncan Paia’aua, and Kerevi posting sub-70 and even sub-60 percent tackle rates.
The addition of defence coach Peter Ryan, who will double as a defence coach for local NRL side Brisbane Broncos, will hopefully bring some much-needed resolve and mold the unit to work together and defend as the situation requires.
The side has quietly said goodbye to other backs in the squad: Jono Lance (Worcester), Ben Lucas (Grenoble), Lachlan Maranta, Eto Nabuli, and Jayden Ngamanu, while the promising Izaia Perese switched back to league.
The most telling aspect of the Reds off-season was the absence of a ‘quick-fix’ headline signing to band-aid over problems. There are no new league wingers or splash signings like Hunt, James O’Connor or Ayumu Goromaru. The arrival of Rebels winger Sefa Naivalu was an unexpected bonus.
Instead, they have picked apples from their own backyard. Jock Campbell has been in a successful UQ side for a number of years who had a breakout NRC season and young Will Eadie is a burner with speed not seen since Rod Davies.
Another young pair, flanker Fraser McReight and lock Harry Wilson are top prospects at their respective positions, adding more youth stocks to the likes of Liam Wright, Angus Scott-Young, Angus Blyth, and Harry Hockings in the pack.
The Reds will hopefully achieve more breadth in the roster by continuing to sign the best young, cheap local talent instead of being top-heavy on a few overpaid stars. It’s a positive sign that McReight has been kept in town despite Wright being around the same age and playing the same position.
The more competition and depth in the Reds squad, the better, but there is no shying away from the fact that is such a young roster, and young players still need time to develop. As rugby players and as athletes, they need to be built over time.
That doesn’t completely absolve the need to win, as the past has shown that championship teams rise over a few seasons and signs start to show in the years before Super Rugby finals are reached.
The Reds need to give their fans a reason to believe this year.
IN: Feao Fotuaika (Brisbane City), Gavin Luka (Bond University), Efi Ma’afu (Queensland Country), Fraser McReight (Brisbane City), Harry Wilson (Queensland Country), Matt McGahan (Yamaha Jubilo), Jock Campbell (Queensland Country), Will Eadie (Brisbane City), Sefa Naivalu (Rebels), Jack Hardy (Western Force), Bryce Hegarty (Waratahs)
OUT: Sef Fa’agase (Highlanders), James Slipper (Brumbies), Markus Vanzati (Force), Andrew Ready (Southland), Kane Douglas (Bordeaux), Michael Gunn (Brisbane City), Reece Hewat (Brisbane City), George Smith (Bristol), Quade Cooper (Rebels), Jono Lance (Worcester), Ben Lucas (Grenoble), Lachlan Maranta (Brisbane City), Eto Nabuli (Bordeaux), Jayden Ngamanu (Brisbane City), Izaia Perese (Redcliffe Dolphins), Karmichael Hunt (Waratahs)
Squad: Feao Fotuaika, Harry Hoopert, Gavin Luka, JP Smith, Ruan Smith, Taniela Tupou, Efi Ma’afu, Alex Mafi, Brandon Paenga-Amosa, Angus Blyth, Harry Hockings, Izack Rodda, Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, Scott Higginbotham, Adam Korczyk, Fraser McReight, Angus Scott-Young, Caleb Timu, Harry Wilson, Liam Wright, Tate McDermott, Moses Sorovi, James Tuttle, Matt McGahan, Hamish Stewart, Teti Tela, Chris Feauai-Sautia, Samu Kerevi, Duncan Paia’aua, Jock Campbell, Filipo Daugunu, Will Eadie, Sefa Naivalu, Jordan Petaia, Jack Hardy, Bryce Hegarty, Aidan Toua
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