How will the Reds make up for their deficit in the red zone?

How far have the Queensland Reds fallen? He is the biggest individual conundrum in Australian provincial rugby at the moment. The Gold Coast golden boys were well seated after the domestic portion of Super Rugby Pacific 2022 ended.

They had claimed seven wins from their first eight games, punctuated by the exclamation point of a resounding 21-7 victory over their bitter local rivals, the Brumbies, on 2North Dakota April at Suncorp. The sun was shining, the wind was blowing in her sails and the course seemed set for the finale.

Flip the clock over in a couple of short months and a very different picture has emerged. Queensland have lost five of their last six matches and slipped to seventh place in the table, behind the Brumbies and Waratahs. The reds suddenly seem rudderless and calm in the face of those black flags waving on the horizon.

They have acquired an unwanted distinction. With the Force and Rebels winning in the final round, Queensland has become the only Australian franchise to fail to win a game against one of New Zealand’s five original regions during the SRP regular season.

The Reds still had most of the cards in their favor in the first three rounds of the cross-border competition, and that’s where they lost the plot. They played every game in Australia (the first at Melbourne’s AAMI Stadium, the next two at Suncorp), against the least threatening New Zealand franchises, in order, the Hurricanes, Chiefs and Highlanders.

The knee jerk reaction from the lazy boy couch is ‘Look at how many injuries the reds have had!’ Does it hold up under scrutiny? In the first two games, Queensland were able to field two starting XVs at almost full force: 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 the back row; Tate McDermott at No. 9, Hunter Paisami and Hamish Stewart at centers, and a mix of Jock Campbell, Suli Vunivalu, Josh Flook and Filipo Daugunu in the bottom three. That list looks pretty good to the casual observer.

The only significant absentee is James O’Connor in issue #10, with the inexperienced Lawson Creighton chosen to take his place. Even after the Tongan Thor missed out during the game against the Chiefs, the Reds were still able to field a respectable unit for the game against the Highlanders, the lowest ranked of any New Zealand team. That Landers team was missing key players of its own, like Shannon Frizell and Jona Nareki.

Injuries are the easy way out, and there should be a great deal of doubt that a shooter as sharp as Reds head coach Brad Thorn I’d buy it as an excuse:

“I think we had five games and I was interviewed and I was not happy with the competition from Australia AU. Like I said, we were playing the Waratahs, 19 turnovers, but we were winning. We won five in a row.

“But we are looking for quality rugby, and the New Zealand teams are proving that if you lose the ball, you have some misses at D, boom, try, another try. That’s why I was unhappy five games into the AU season, because I know the reality. I’ve played it, I know what it is, and that’s why I said we had to play the Kiwis.

“If you look at it a couple of years ago, the margins were under 10 points if we lost. It is important that we play against them, you want to play the best”.

Those were the prophetic words from the Queensland boss exactly one calendar year ago, after the end of the Super Rugby Trans-Tasman regular season.

Meanwhile, Thorn has repaired some of the damage. The 19-point average margin of loss against New Zealand sides at Trans-Tasman 2021 dropped to just over 12 points a year later, with only one drubbing coming against the Blues; the average number of tries conceded 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’ll see that another pattern has taken shape. As I suggested in Coach’s Corner from last week the two most successful Australian teams against Kiwi opposition in 2022, the Brumbies and the Waratahs, play the game in a different way.

Take a look at how they score their attempts: over 60% from the wing and less than 20% from the fast break. The Reds are closer to a typical New Zealand side like the Blues, who tend to get their scores from both sources equally: exactly 43% from each platform for the Blues, 41% from each platform for the Reds.

Queensland’s big problem is their lineout weakness, which sits just above Fijians Drua and Moana Pasifika at the bottom of the table with a low retention rate of 79%. Compare that to class leaders in Australia (the Rebels at over 88%) and New Zealand (the Highlanders at 91%), and the Brumbies and Waratahs, who weigh in at 87%. You can feel the difference.

Half of all tries scored at Super Rugby Pacific 2022 start from a lineout. If you don’t have a reliable set piece, you can’t hope to occupy those crucial positions in and around the opponent’s 22 (the so-called red zone) long enough for it to count.

Reds interim captain Tate McDermott, who has provided tremendous value with his honest and often emotional post-game interviews, indirectly addressed the failure after the weekend’s loss to the Crusaders:

“Really proud of how we managed to get it back and we’ll keep going. Not many teams get two chances in a row against the Crusaders and we’ll take the positives out of that 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 put phases together, we looked really good… but it’s about doing that for longer periods of time.”

If Brad Thorn’s Queensland charges want a chance of beating the same opponents on Friday night, they need to send their save team straight to the lineout and set pieces in the red zone.

The rot began to set in at the first Queensland red zone lineout on the 13ththe minute, on the edge of the 22 of the Crusaders:

The Reds had already won the ball with this setup by throwing at the obvious target (Seru Uru) with their setter already pinned up front. In this case, Queensland caller Ryan Smith opts for the typical second play in this rotation, with Uru coming out 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 “reflects” on the Queensland move and turns to push Cullen Grace. That spells immediate trouble for the Reds, because Scott-Young lacks the natural vitality of his opponent:

Angus Scott-Young’s lack of takeoff speed caused the following Reds to malfunction a few minutes later.

In this case, the Reds were saved by a Crusaders tackle, only to quickly return the ball from the scrum that followed:

Harry Wilson attempts the low percentage offload to Scott-Young in the second phase, the ball goes loose and the Crusaders pick it up. There’s no chance of spending time on the opponent’s 22 and putting pressure on the home defence, the kind of pressure that leads to points, penalties and yellow cards for persistent infringements.

Queensland responded to lineout competition by seeking clever gimmick plays or quick penalties to avoid the orthodox lineout altogether:

At first, Ryan Smith calls for a quick exchange between Harry Wilson and Richie Asiata at the front of the line, but Wilson’s pass is too clumsy and that’s another turnover scrum. In the second example, Tate McDermott completely avoids the lineout just five meters from the goal line, but his two supports (Vunivalu and Campbell) are too slow and Leicester Fainga’anuku can snatch the ball from him.

When Queensland went to the back of the queue, they were no more successful:

The last two clips are particularly instructive. Although Queensland recovered the ball from Asiata’s unintentional takedown, the damage had already been done. The throw will be recorded in the stat book as a ‘win’, but it is actually a loss because the entire attack structure has been lost.

Harry Wilson drops back in the second leg, and the Reds are still struggling to get past 22 three legs later, when Dane Zander gets the ball stolen at the tackle and the Crusaders break down his left side.

Even when the Reds finally scored a try from a close-range lineout late in the game, it came from a broken piece salvaged by big hands down the short side of the maroon baseline:

Again, there is no pressure from the structure applied over time, but rather from the beautifully executed instinctive skills of 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 from a lineout deep at the Crusaders 22-yard line, eating up the clock, running out of time. D and accumulating the full seven points:

Summary

Don’t believe people who would tell you that the Reds’ problems against New Zealand opposition are the result of an injury slump. In reality, only James O’Connor and Taniela Tupou have been absent from action for any length of time, and the best teams know how to close ranks and lock down shields even when key players are missing.

Queensland also enjoyed the advantage of playing first against the three weakest New Zealand teams, with all games taking place in Australia and two of them at Suncorp. There are no excuses, but the good news is that many corrections 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 opportunity to score points is by occupying space and time in and around your opponent’s red zone. Once you enter opposition 22, don’t leave until you come out with concrete gains.

Like the Brumbies and Waratahs, the Reds have to be able to tighten the turnstile and apply pressure progressively from those situations. They need to be sure they can win nine out of 10 shots they deliver to the lineout, keep the ball and sit in positions until the D starts screeching.

It can come on points, it can come on penalties and yellow cards, but there will be a snowball effect. Do that, and the unthinkable can still happen: an upset victory for Australia in New Zealand’s rugby citadel and redemption in the red.

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