Shaving the margins. Skating on thin ice. Riding for a fall. There are a lot of different phrases in the English language for some of the risks the Queensland Reds are embracing during their Super Rugby AU games in 2021.
One of my favourite watches during the extended period of winter lockdown in the UK has been a movie called Free Solo. It is an award-winning documentary about Alex Honnold, and his journey to climb one of the most forbidding slabs of vertical rock in California’s Yosemite National Park.
El Capitan is a wall of granite estimated to be around one million years old. The wrinkle in Free Solo is the climber uses no assistance of any kind. No ropes, no harnesses, no protection. No safety net of any kind. If they fall, there will be nobody there to catch them.
When Alex Honnold finally reaches the summit of El Cap, his cries of triumph echo into an empty dawn sky and die away quickly. The mountain does not care, and somehow the ascent still looks and feels impossible – long after Honnold has reached the top and raised his arms into the thin blue air.
While the Queensland Reds may not be competing at quite this level of impossibility, they are certainly testing the limits of the feasible within their playing squad.
They are trying to bed in a wing from rugby league, Suliasi Vunivalu, with zero professional experience in the union game, and they have had to sacrifice one of their old dependables in the backline, Hamish Stewart, in order to do it.
At the same time, the Reds are trying to advance Wallaby aims further up the pyramid. They have shifted Hunter Paisami to inside centre and are developing him into the running, kicking and passing ‘triple threat’ that Dave Rennie and Scott Wismantel have publicly stated that they want.
Hunter Paisami. (Photo by Albert Perez/Getty Images)
Although Paisami came out well in credit overall from last weekend’s game against the Force, some of his long passing work off the left hand out towards Vunivalu on the right wing can still give Queensland supporters kittens.
Sometimes it worked like a dream:
At others, it did Vunivalu no favours at all:
In lineout defence, the Reds are attempting a Michael Cheika-like musical chairs rearrangement. In the following instance, from a Force lineout late in the first period, the blindside wing, Iliasa Droasese, is defending in the ten channel (1), fullback Jock Campbell goes to the left wing (2, out of shot) and James O’Connor moves over to fullback (3, also out of shot):
Failure comes as no surprise to those Wallaby supporters who had to endure the torture of the Cheika/Nathan Grey era in defence:
O’Connor drops the ball, and suddenly the Reds are struggling desperately to get back with their dustpans and brushes to pick up the broken pieces.
Some of the movements in the second half were even harder to explain:
From the lineout, the Force set up a straightforward maul and box kick exit off their scrumhalf, Tomas Cubelli. The Queensland motion on defence is positively Brownian in response:
As the kick descends, Droasese is dropping back off the line, Campbell runs forward from the left wing, and O’Connor shifts across from fullback. The ball falls to the ground, unclaimed, somewhere between Droasese and Campbell.
On the following play, O’Connor runs forward from the backfield into the line, and it is left to scrumhalf Tate McDermott to scuttle all the way back from position 4 to recover the kick about 70 metres downfield. Efficient it is not.
The aspect of the game where Queensland are shaving the refereeing margins the most is the scrum, and it is here that a suspicion prevails that they will come a cropper, sooner or later.
With the benefit of the overhead shots in the match against the Rebels, it was possible to observe how Queensland tend to move the set-piece sideways, on occasion dramatically so, from their right to left, before trying to move it forwards:
The first scrum of the two is particularly instructive. Taniela Tupou’s angle towards Rebels hooker Jordan Uelese becomes ever more acute as the scrum progresses, and Reds loosehead Dane Zander is attempting to step out to his left and disengage from the bind with his opposite number so that he is effectively pushing against thin air.
The Force would have been disappointed when referee Damon Murphy decided to reward this behaviour early in the game:
The penalty doesn’t matter because Queensland scrumhalf Tate McDermott scores a try, but the refereeing pattern established by the play would have been concerning, both for the Force coaches off the field, and their veteran tighthead prop Greg Holmes on it:
The Reds are not pushing straight. Zander has done nothing but walk around Holmes, to the point where he is completely disengaged from his opposite number, while Angus Scott-Young is cannily holding Fergus Lee-Warner in on the other side to prevent him tackling McDermott. That is enough to give the Reds scrumhalf a free run around the edge of the set-piece.
The same pattern was repeated at some important moments in the game:
Zander takes a couple of side-steps out to his left, so that instead of pushing directly against Greg Holmes he can run around his right shoulder:
As a result, the Queensland loosehead prop finishes the scrum looking towards his own goal-line, and standing outside the Force flanker and scrumhalf on his side:
Holmes is stood in much the same spot as where he started, but somehow this scenario has become worthy of a penalty to the Reds.
The behaviour didn’t change with Harry Hoopert on for Zander and Santiago Medrano replacing Holmes:
The Force back row has effectively been taken out of the play, and that makes life easy for the Queensland backline on the scoring phase.
The technique utilized by the Queensland scrum should not be mistaken for dominance, as Greg Holmes and the Force were able to prove when they had the feed:
In both cases, Force loosehead Tom Robertson is tucking in underneath Taniela Tupou as the Reds tighthead shifts ever further towards the centre of the scrum, not walking around him – and the Force scrum is that much closer to moving forward on both sides of the set-piece as a result.
The Queensland Reds are the only unbeaten team left in Super Rugby AU, but they should not deceive themselves about how good they really are.
Brad Thorn was right after the win over the Brumbies when he said, “Gee, there a lot of work on [for us]”. That comment still rings true, as does James O’Connor’s statement that “I’m happy in essence we found a way to win, but to be honest that was pretty poor from us” after another narrow squeak against the Force.
Whatever the Reds may really believe, Hunter Paisami is not yet a world-class playmaker, he is still learning the ropes at number 12 – just like league recruit Suliasi Vunivalu on the right wing.
The Queensland defence has some structural flaws, both in terms of back-row organisation, and in the musical chairs swapping of the backs at lineout time.
Brad Thorn. (Photo by Albert Perez/Getty Images)
The scrum – especially when Brandon Paenga-Amosa is not in the middle of the front row – is a smoke-and-mirrors operation, which may falter under more knowledgeable refereeing scrutiny.
Queensland are not exactly hanging by a thread, or by one of those one-inch, micro-toeholds which separated life from death on Alex Honnold’s climb of El Capitan, but there are sufficient holes in their game for them to keep their feet firmly on the ground.
They should thank their lucky stars that they do not have to play the Crusaders for at least a couple more months. They are not ready for that kind of test – at least, not yet.