Form in 2011
Wow! What a magical return to the top. Finally an Australian team has returned to the summit of Super Rugby. Thirteenth to first in just two seasons. The Reds were sparkling for most of 2011- as you would expect from a championship winning side. They season started a little slowly, however, with a lucky one point get out of jail in round 1 against the Force followed by a 30-6 demolition at the hands of the Waratahs. McKenzie saw reason after that and brought in Beau Robinson as a genuine openside flanker. What followed was 7 straight wins to the Queenslanders; the streak only broken when McKenzie rested a number of stars against the cellar dwelling Hurricanes. Even then the Hurricanes only sneaked it with a score at the death to take the game. Their only other loss of the season was the surprise attack at the hands of a fired up Brumbies side that threw everything- including the kitchen sink- at the Reds. The Reds topped the log at the end of the regular season. They easily accounted for the Blues 30-13 in their semi-final and took a thrilling final by just 5 points for their first championship in the professional era. Canít get much better form than that!Happy man.
They have also looked sharp in their two pre-season trials against the Brumbies and the Force. Things are looking good for the Reds in 2012.
Comings and Goings
The beauty of being top dogs in the competition is that player retention becomes a thousand times easier. Everyone wants to play for a winning team. Theyíll even put up with living in Brisbane to do it. The Reds only lost 4 players from last season and none of those played a huge part in their epic season. Back-up scrum-half Ian Prior has chased more game time down in Canberra- god knows he wonít get a lot of game time behind Billy Genia. Backrowers Lei Tomiki and Leroy Houston have also moved on. Injured limited Tomikiís game time at the Reds while Houston just didnít have the work rate to crack back into the Redsí starting team after a few average games earlier in the season. Will Chambers had a fairly average season in 2011 after such a promising 2010. He injury and poor form limited his time in the red jersey. All in all, thatís not too much lost and augurs well for backing it up next season.
McKenzie hasnít added a lot to his squad either. After playing a fair bit in the back end of the season, Jono Lance has been given a full contract. The 10/15 is a promising young player for the Reds but is 4th in line for a few spots behind Quade Cooper, Mike Harris and Ben Lucas. The Reds also recruited Sydney club lock Dave McDuling. Unfortunately, McDuling injured himself in pre-season and wonít be playing this season. Outside backs Chris Feauai-Sautia and Aidan Toua are also in the senior squad. Toua is highly talented; however he is also incredibly injury prone. CFS has big raps from those who have watched his progress through schoolboys. He was nabbed early before other franchises could get their claws in.
Players to watch out for...
The most incredible thing that McKenzie has managed in taking the Reds straight to the top, is the succession planning he has done along the way. Not only does he have a sensational backrow of Higginbotham, Robinson and Samo to rely on, but he also has generation next in Ed Quirk, Liam Gill and Jake Schatz nipping at their heels and ready to take their places as they start looking toward retirement either to Japan/Europe or just retirement in general. These are the guys to look forward to. The terriers who may well all become Wallabies before the next World Cup. McKenzie is sure to give them all a fair bit of game time as he rotates his squad and you can bet their hunger will translate into some pretty impressive performances.
I think the Redsí biggest strength is their confidence- they now have it in spades. They have a championship under their belt and they know what they are capable of. They know their systems work and that affords them the latitude to try new things out and revert to the norm if it falls apart.
Another impressive side of the Reds is the depth and the stability they have in their squad. There shouldnít be too many teething problems as the season kicks off. There is enough talent in the squad to handle an injury crisis and those players have been in the set up for long enough that the transition should be fairly seamless. As previously mentioned, McKenzie has been fantastic at recruiting to have an excellent balance of old and new. As the current Reds team is being successful, so are the next generation of Reds being prepared to take over and stay at the top. In a post world cup year, few teams would count themselves stronger than the year before, so retaining the core squad means so much more.
The home crowd will be another factor driving the Reds toward victory. With memberships currently sitting around 25,000, you can bet that Suncorp will be absolutely packed for most of the games there. The 16th man will be huge- it will encourage the home team, dismay the visitors and no doubt have some small influence on the referees.
The big problem for the Reds in 2012 is Quade Cooper. It was off the back of the Genia-Cooper combination that the Reds were able to turn any team inside out with their attack. How much of that was down to Genia and how much was down to Cooper? How will the Reds cope without the opposition constantly second guessing where Cooper will go? The Reds simply may not be as potent- may not have that top two inches- without Cooper playing for the first half of the season. Itís possible they will be better, that Mike Harris or Ben Lucas will be more clinical and less risky. But if, like me and probably Quade himself, you believe attack is the best form of defence, youíd have to think the Reds will be less dangerous without Cooper.
Will Genia looking like he needed to visit the facilities before that game.
The scrum remains an issue for the Reds. Sure James Slipper, Saia Faingaa and Ben Daley get through a mountain of work around the field, but they had arguably the worst scrum in the competition in 2011- definitely the worst in the Australian conference. Now a scrum isnít everything, and against a lot of teams in the competition a wobbly scrum wonít stop the Reds from running riot. However the scrum very nearly cost the Reds both games against the Crusaders in 2011, which includes the Super Rugby final. Oddly, McCaw twice opted for 3 points instead of taking a 5m scrum and shunting the Reds pack into conceding 7 points and possibly even a yellow sticker for repeated collapses. McKenzie will want to tighten up this area.
The Reds scrum: Like an Italian tank.
I started out thinking that the Reds would struggle to repeat their feats of 2011, especially after Cooper did his knee. But they are still an excellent team and they may just find the Australian conference a bit easier in 2012 than it was in 2011. The Waratahs are crippled by injuries. The Force backline doesnít look threatening. The Brumbies are very green and lack class. The Rebels still have a weak pack. The only team that can genuinely say they are better than they were in 2011 is the Rebels and that was the only team that didnít trouble the Reds. The Queenslanders should reign supreme in the Australian conference and have a handful of easy home games against NZ and SA sides. At least enough to comfortably get them into 1st or 2nd spot. This year I donít think they will be quite so fortunate- they will stumble in the semi-finals to finish a reputable 3rd.