The Queensland Reds are strong favourites to beat the Brumbies in Saturday night’s Super Rugby AU final in Brisbane, but one potentially fatal flaw could bring them undone.
The Reds won the minor premiership, twice defeating the Brumbies in the regular season – albeit narrowly and coming from behind both times – and will play in front of a big crowd at Suncorp Stadium, a venue not friendly to the Brumbies.
And yet Brad Thorn’s side must remedy their handling errors in attack or find themselves vulnerable to an upset.
In the first period of Brad Thorn’s coaching, the Reds physically dominated opponents but played a limited game and struggled to score tries. Then, since 2011 title-winning attack coach Jim McKay returned to Queensland in 2018, they gradually began to play a more expansive game.
The Reds still physically dominate up front and their individually brilliant backs are prepared to use the width of the field, but the current group is not as skilful and cohesive as the one McKay coached in 2011.
The lively Tate McDermott provides wonderful passing and running options at halfback, while five-eighth James O’Connor controls the play beautifully, but once the ball travels beyond the halves anything can happen.
Make no mistake, when the Reds’ passes stick, they are capable of scoring exhilarating, long-range tries, but the ball goes to ground too oftenwhen attempting a risky one-handed offload when a simple catch and pass would suffice.
With his Crusaders background, Thorn would not be overly-concerned about the Reds making positive mistakes, but unforced handling errors are momentum-killers, which would invite the Brumbies into the game.
The Reds will miss the penetration of injured centre Hunter Paisami, but they still have plenty of strike power in the backs. If they play with pace, power and precision, they could carve up the Brumbies. If not, they may play into their hands.
For the Brumbies, opposition handling errors lead to scrums, which often lead to penalties, which almost always lead to five-metre lineouts where most of the Brumbies’ tries originate. The Reds forwards, of course, will be looking to dominate the set-pieces to turn the Brumbies’ strength into a weakness.
Both teams are coming off matches with the Western Force, but it would be wise not to read too much into either of these games.
The Force upset the Reds 30-27 in Perth in the final round, a game in which the result did not matter, while the Brumbies seemed to play within themselves in their 21-9 win against the Force in Saturday night’s qualifying final in Canberra.
The Brumbies experimented a little bit against the Force and yet still appeared to be keeping something up their sleeve. In the first half they turned down several attempts at penalty goal to go for an attacking lineout. Nothing surprising about that – it is their go-to play after all. But instead of driving the maul the way they usually do, they played a variety of rehearsed moves off it.
A dress rehearsal for the Reds? The Brumbies know the Reds will invest much time preparing to defend the rolling maul. Now they will have them guessing.
In the second half the Brumbies took the points on offer. Maybe just to secure the win? Perhaps they had already shown enough of their hand? Nevertheless, they played conservatively against the Force, always attacking the left-hand side of the field, and became predictable.
There is a fine line between being well-drilled and robotic, but you got the sense the Brumbies were keeping their powder dry. Much will depend on talented youngster such as five-eighth Noah Lolesio, who can run, pass and kick, but needs to take control of the game.
They must get the ball to strike weapons, outside-centre Len Ikitau and winger Tom Wright in the wide channels if they are to threaten the Reds’ defence, which will be rushing up.
There are match-ups all over the park, from the front row to the back three, which will be critical not just for the outcome of the game but also for Wallabies selection.
While the Brumbies have been the best team in Australia for several years, there is a sense the Reds’ time has come, having beaten the ACT outfit in three of their last four encounters.
In the cauldron that is Suncorp, in front of a parochial crowd, it will take all of the Brumbies’ mental fortitude to stay calm and composed. The most penalised team in the competition, the Brumbies must maintain discipline under pressure.
All things considered, the Reds probably should win this final unless they drop the ball, both literally and figuratively.