2019 Super Rugby Report Card: How did the Reds measure up this season?

Super Rugby
by Emma Greenwood

RUGBY.com.au will be running the rule over each of the four Australian teams' 2019 Super Rugby seasons.

First up, the Queensland Reds.

Just two more wins would have sealed them a place in the quarters - and they had their chances, leading deep into the final stages of their opening match of the season against the Highlanders, threatening the Waratahs in Brisbane but failing to convert their kicks and somehow being unable to turn a mountain of possession against the Chiefs into a try at the death.

Ultimately, they finished 14th overall and fourth in the Australian conference, failing to improve on their record of six wins last season, although there were improvements overall.

Position

14th (6-10)

High point

36-14 win over Brumbies at Suncorp Stadium, Round 6

It may have come during soaring temperatures in a Suncorp Stadium sweatbox but the way the Reds dismantled the Brumbies' vaunted rolling maul and dominated their pack was outstanding.

Coming off the back of their first win of the season in Tokyo a week earlier, the victory gave the Reds momentum they hoped to continue into their trip to South Africa. But a loss in Quade Cooper's return to Queensland the following week demonstrated there is still too much distance between their best and worst performances.

 

Low point

 The conference losses to the Rebels and Waratahs cost them dearly but seeing star centre Jordan Petaia sitting on the Suncorp Stadium turf clutching at his foot in just the second match of the season marked a low point for the Reds.

Queensland had built their backline hopes around a Kerevi-Petaia midfield partnership that promised so much in the opening match of the season but an injury to his lisfrancs ligament forced Petaia into surgery to stabilise his midfoot and he has only just returned to running.

While Kerevi was outstanding and Chris Feauai-Sautia had his best season in several years, the Reds' depth in the backs was sorely tested and the loss of Petaia keenly felt.

Jordan Petaia clutches at his foot after wrenching it in a tackle against the Crusaders at Suncorp Stadium. Photo: Rugby AU Media/Stuart Walmsley

Turning point

Reds 34 - Sunwolves 31 in Tokyo, Round 5

Having lost their opening three games of the season, the Reds headed to Tokyo with their season already on the precipice.

Despite impressing in their opening two games - against the Highlanders and Crusaders - the Reds came up empty-handed again against the Waratahs and were staring down the barrel of another defeat when trailing by 16 points at halftime in Japan.

But a trio of youngsters combined for the win - Harry Hockings charging down a kick and Tate McDermott diving on the scraps to score in the 74th minute before Hamish Stewart slotted a penalty in the 79th minute - to kickstart the Reds' campaign.

What they did well

The Reds' performance in several statistical categories suggest they should not have finished in second-last position on the overall ladder.

The Queenslanders were equal second for rucks won and fourth for lineouts won, showing their strength at the set piece, while they were third overall for defenders beaten and in the top eight for breaks, total carries and metres carried.

Their young pack is one of the most formidable in the competition and with players to come in from the Junior Wallabies next season, coach Brad Thorn will be hoping his forwards are given an even chance to compete at the scrum.

Problem area

Kicking and retaining possession. The Reds' kicking in general play improved slowly but it was woeful at times, especially early in the season, and piled pressure on the team. While goalkicking was a respectable 78 per cent overall, lapses cost them at times, especially against the Waratahs.

Queensland also ran last in offloads and need to find an avenue to improve next season, with 26 of the team's 110 for the year coming from the departing Samu Kerevi alone. Handling errors and cheap turnovers also hurt, with the Reds too often failing to respect possession and squandering their chances.

Try of the season

Tate McDermott vs Sharks in Durban, Round 10

Originally slated as a match inspirational captain Samu Kerevi would have to miss under Rugby Australia's workload management policy, the centre played and was outstanding for a Reds team desperate to keep their slim finals hopes alive.

His break just inside the Sharks was pivotal to the match-winner. Kerevi found Chris Feauai-Sautia on his outside, who did well not to allow the play to break down once tackled.

Tate McDermott was on hand to continue the surge, finding Bryce Hegarty, with Scott Higginbotham trailing well and standing in the tackle until the scrumhalf bobbed up again and raced away to score under the posts.

Player demanding a ticket to Japan

Samu Kerevi. The Reds captain was arguably the form player of the whole competition - and unquestionably at no.12 - and will be among the first picked for the Wallabies.

While some questioned his ability to play at no.12, he showed genuine ball-playing skills, rock solid defence and continues to improve his kicking to be a genuine ballplaying option for Michael Cheika.

Led the competition in carries (220) and defenders beaten (71) was in the top five for clean breaks and offloads in his final season in Reds colours. Brad Thorn's decision to hand him the captaincy was also inspired, with Kerevi maturing as a leader and a player in a move that will help the Wallabies in Japan.

Rookie of the year

Isaac Lucas. The Reds handed the honour to winger Jock Campbell at their recent end-of-season awards and it's a fair call after his rise from club rugby ranks to Super Rugby regular who scored two tries in his nine games.

But Lucas, who ultimately played eight games for the Reds after making his debut off the bench in the season-opener against the Highlanders, would have turned out in every match had it not been for Junior Wallabies commitments.

Lucas, who only turned 20 earlier this year, made run-on starts at fullback and no.10 and has just returned from Argentina and an outstanding campaign with the Junior Wallabies at no.15, where he was among the best players in the tournament.

Best recruit

Bryce Hegarty. While he started the season at fullback, Hegarty found a home at no.10, with his maturity and communication as important as his playmaking skills.

Recruited from the Waratahs as a trade for Karmichael Hunt, Hegarty has been an outstanding addition to the Reds squad and is already considered one of the leaders among a young group.

Where Brad Thorn opts to play him next season will be interesting, with Isaac Lucas set to play a bigger role in 2020, while Hamish Stewart is also in the mix.

What Netflix program they turned out to be

Orange is the New Black, Season 6

Slated pre-season as Tidying Up with Marie Kondo after Brad Thorn ran a broomstick through the Reds group, they were more like the last season of OITNB , a once outstanding franchise that promised plenty this season but failed to fully deliver on its potential.

Certainly no stinker, plenty of highlights but wasn't consistently good enough to get to the next level. Already plenty of buzz about next season though.

Burning questions answered

RUGBY.com.au laid out some burning questions for each team at the start of the year. How do the answers look now?

Can Taniela Tupou can turn his 2018 improvement into around the ground domination?

Tupou struggled for form for much of the season after a breakout 2018 campaign, eventually revealing to Rugby.com.au he had been struggling for much of the year. But after rediscovering a love for the game, he made great strides in the back half of the season and will challenge for a World Cup spot.

Can Hamish Stewart stamp his authority at 10?

Short answer, no. The Reds struggled to find their playmaking groove early in the season, testing Stewart, Bryce Hegarty and Isaac Lucas in the no.10 jersey before opting to leave Hegarty there and shift Stewart to fullback. A season-ending shoulder injury meant Hegarty shifted to the back to finish the season with Matt McGahan becoming the Reds' fourth flyhalf option for the season.

Will Lukhan Salakaia-Loto settle as a six or a lock?

Salakaia-Loto was one of the Reds' best this season playing as a genuine backrower, mostly at no.6. Rugby Australia's workload management policy meant Salakaia-Loto shifted into lock on a couple of occasions when Izack Rodda was out but Brad Thorn stuck with the script and gave the promising Angus Blyth game time when Harry Hockings was suspended, leaving Salakaia-Loto to push his case for World Cup inclusion at no.6.

 

Can Jordan Petaia force his way into the World Cup squad?

Petaia looked a world beater in the Reds' season opener against the Highlanders in Dunedin but his world came crashing down just a week later when he ruptured a ligament in his foot in the clash against the Crusaders. Surgery and months of rehab followed and the young gun has just returned to running and sealed a spot in camp with the Wallabies in a sign he is likely to be tested through The Rugby Championship to determine whether he can stand up to the rigours of a World Cup campaign.

Grade: C+. While they won the same number of games as last year, there was definitely improvement from the Reds but they can't edge above a C while still failing to make the top half of the competition.