Round 8 of Super Rugby AU kicked off at the Cbus Super Stadium for the Western Force’s last “home” game of the tournament, taking on the Queensland Reds. With the Brumbies not playing until tomorrow, the Reds knew that a win would put them top of the standings, but they were lucky not to go behind early on as Brad Lacey was too flat to take a cut-out pass from Jack McGregor that would have put the Force winger over in the corner. Having survived that scare, the Reds built into the game offensively and after Taniela Tupou had a try disallowed, Filipo Daugunu opened the scoring by taking an inside pass off James O’Connor as the ball came away from a maul. The Reds backline was forced into a reshuffle after losing both centres to injury before the half hour mark, but it didn’t seem to affect them as they continued to gain an advantage over the Force and managed to put Daugunu over in the corner for his second. As halftime approached, O’Connor added 3 points from the kicking tee, but there was time for one more chance as Tupou broke through the defence on the edge of the Force 22 and went through the gears, only to lose his footing and knock on with the line at his mercy – a let-off for the Force, who found themselves still in the game at halftime with the score just 0-15.
The Force struck first after halftime with a driving maul getting hooker Andrew Ready across the line, but 5-15 was the closest things got for them. As the Reds put the pressure on, Fraser McReight had a try ruled out for a double movement, but the pressure soon told and a yellow card for prop Kieran Longbottom opened the floodgates as McReight took a beautiful offload inside from Jame O’Connor to cross – legally this time – and just minutes later scrumhalf Tate McDermott sniped down the blind side at a ruck and stepped Lacey with ease to score. 14 points from the sin bin was already a good haul, but as Longbottom was due to go back on, McDermott took a quick-tap penalty and the scrum half found it far too easy to weave through defenders on his way to a second try. O’Connor had played a key role in the Reds attack and got his own reward with just 10 minutes left, as Daugunu, Tupou and McReight countered following a recovered kick. McDermott thought he had his hat-trick only for a TMO referral to show that he lost control of the ball as he crossed the line, but on just the 2ⁿᵈ phase after the restart, Bryce Hegarty slipped through some tired tackling from the replacement front row to go over under the posts, while replacement lock Tuaina Taii Tualima scored after the final hooter to finish things off, O’Connor converting for a final score of 5-57.
The Reds will be thrilled to have a bye next week as they will need it to try and get a back line arranged. The Reds were forced into an early reshuffle as Josh Flook lasted just 19 minutes of his first Super Rugby start before needing to be replaced, and things got even worse just 9 minutes later as their other starting centre, Hamish Stewart was escorted off the pitch. With no recognised centres on the bench, this led to a reshuffle as James O’Connor was moved out to 12 – with Bryce Hegarty coming on at 10 – an Jordan Petaia moved in from wing to 13 to accommodate Jack Harvey.
Luckily for the Reds, they were able to make do in this game – and even moved Tate McDermott to the right wing late on when Petaia went off – but how will they cope longer-term? Both players will be missed if they are not available for a couple of matches, while Hunter Paisami and Chris Feauai-Sautia are both already out injured.
Luckily for them, a number of their backs are versatile, while Paisami may be back after the bye, but if we assume that all 4 are missing, how could the Reds be forced to line up against the Brumbies in Round 10? McDermott would secure the 9 spot, while Hegarty would come in at 10, allowing O’Connor to switch out to 12. As in this match, Petaia would move to 13, with Jock Campbell staying at 15 and the wing spots occupied by Daugunu and Harvey.
While that is still a strong back line, the only other backs that would be available for the bench would be the scrum halves Scott Malolua and Moses Sorovi. This would probably lead to them having to call up players from the Academy – who could be well out of their depth – or potentially looking at a player like Fraser McReight and trying to spend the bye week training them to be an emergency back. Heck, from the way Tupou played this week, you could always look at him as an option at centre!
With the Reds’ lineout finally performing at more acceptable levels (15/17 – 88%) we got a chance to see how they look to use it as an attacking platform.
Often they used the same set-up, which allowed a number of options: the team would look like they are setting up for the driving maul, but the man at the back with the ball would spin out and pop to the hooker on the loop. The scrum half would be doing a loop of his own from the open side to the blind side, slightly deeper than the hooker, while the blind side winger would be tracking on the hooker’s inside shoulder. Moving into the back line, the 12 would be running a crash ball line, with the 10 in behind them. For those of you who are struggling to visualise that in your mind, I have used all of my (minimal) MS Paint skills to put this together for you:
Now what makes this setup so clever is that they can run so many different plays off the exact same shape:
- The hooker can reverse the play back to the scrum half, who can take advantage of a defence coming over to the open side too quickly
- The hooker can take the ball on themselves and then depending on how the defence reacts and where the gap opens up, they can either…
- … keep hold of the ball themselves
- … feed the ball back inside to the winger
- … throw a flat pass to the 12 on the crash ball – the 10 and 2 would be there to clean out and the blind side winger could secure the breakdown or play an acting scrum half role if there is quick ball
- … pull the ball back behind the 12 to the fly half, who can the spread the ball if the defence has bit on the strike runners and come too narrow
By having all of these options available off the same shape, it makes it very easy to manipulate the defence as there is automatically a degree of disguise on the play, which will mean that one of the options will likely be left undefended. It does however put a lot of pressure on the hooker, who must be mobile enough and have the sleight of hand to make the range of passes required – not an issue with Brandon Paenga-Amosa. If the Reds can continue putting their issues securing the lineout behind them, then this is going to make them highly effective attacking off the set piece.
Too much, too soon
I’ve been hoping against hope all competition, but with just 2 away games left, I’m coming to the realisation that the Western Force will finish the competition without a win to their name.
Their Super Time loss at “home” to the Rebels was the one time they looked able to win a match, but they have generally looked second best, and in some matches like this one, they have been thoroughly outclassed. Now with just 2 away matches remaining, any hopes of a win look all-but over.
Sadly, there was just too much against them this year. The season did not start with them meant to be playing Super Rugby, and it has shown in the players they have at their disposal. You have players like Byron Ralston and Jack McGregor playing key roles despite having no experience of playing at this level, while at the other end of the spectrum you have players like Kieran Longbottom and Heath Tessman who are well past their prime. And then there are others who just don’t seem up tot he standard of Super Rugby, like Brad Lacey or other players who were overlooked for Super Rugby squads for some reason or another – perhaps a combination of age and playing for under-the-radar teams while having severe competition in front of them at their former teams, perhaps due to not being eligible for Australia meaning they are losing out to younger, eligible talent. And then finally there are all the recent signings – many of them who would be considered the more talented players like Richard Kahui, Chris Godwin and Nick Frisby, but they are coming in so late, the chemistry is not there with the rest of the team. All this combines to just leave them out of their depth against superior teams who have better chemistry.
Further to this, what became clear in this game is that the fitness required in a game of Super Rugby is having its toll, as the players who were already with the club have got used to shorter games against significantly weaker opposition in Global Rapid Rugby, so they are now fining themselves unable to cope with the combination of speed and physicality required at this level. This became expressly clear looking at the front row options in this game as they will have spells of superiority at the scrum before tiring, while the majority of the rest of their positive impact will be at the set piece and any driving mauls – like Ready’s try today. But in open play, they largely disappear, one half of slid carrying from Chris Heiberg earlier in the tournament a rare outlier. They are tiring too quickly and as a result they are not making the tackles that they should – you just need to look at Hegarty’s try today to see that, and that was the replacements, who in theory should have been relatively fresh still!
Finally, as if that wasn’t enough against them already, they have been forced to play the entire tournament away from home – this match against the Queensland Reds was in Queensland – which robs them of much-needed support, which would have spurred them n in close games like against the Rebels.
With the future of Super Rugby up in the air at the moment, there is a chance that the Force may be here to stay, but they will need to look at improving their squad and holding onto as many of their impressive players as they can if they want to make an immediate impact.