The tactical masterstroke that ended Australia’s Super Rugby drought

The Queensland Reds made a crucial tactical shift to record a drought-breaking 40-34 win against the Chiefs in their Super Rugby Trans-Tasman match in Townsville at the weekend. Coach Brad Thorn started two bigger flankers, co-captain Liam Wright and Angus Scott-Young, bringing openside flanker Fraser McReight off the reserves’ bench.

It was a big call as McReight is one of Australian rugby’s rising stars, a member of the 2019 Junior Wallabies’ so-called “golden generation”. Scott-Young is not necessarily a better footballer than McReight, but he is 10cm taller and 8kg heavier, giving the Reds a highly physical and strong back row.

Since the 2019 World Cup final between South Africa and England it has been clear that big back-row combinations are one of the keys to winning in the modern era, while Australia’s traditional smaller, more mobile openside flanker is becoming obsolete.

This shift in tactical thinking also has important ramifications for the Wallabies with national coach Dave Rennie committing to specialist No 7 Michael Hooper to captain the side again this year, bucking the international trend.

With a bigger backrow Queensland were able to win the collisions against the Chiefs and when the Reds win the collisions they more often than not win the game. But that was not the only important change the Reds made.

The Queenslanders are prone to making unforced handling errors and desperately needed to tidy up this area. Unlike their big losses to the Highlanders and the Crusaders in the first two rounds, the Reds “treasured” the ball against the Chiefs, which is necessary to have any hope of beating the counter-attacking New Zealanders.

It was 457 days since an Australian Super Rugby team beat a New Zealand side. In the first 10 minutes it looked as if the Chiefs might cut the Reds to pieces, but as Wright pointed out, Queensland capitalised on some ill-discipline.

The Reds really only achieved dominance over the Chiefs midway through the first-half after the visitors went down to 14 and then 13 men following a yellow card to winger Chase Tiatia for a deliberate knock down and the red-carding of star five-eighth Damian McKenzie for a high tackle on Tate McDermott.

With the Reds leading 33-3 at half-time the game should have been beyond reach for the Chiefs, but Queensland only just managed to withstand a second-half comeback by a team that should have been fatigued after playing under-manned.

Whether the Reds’ win was a breakthrough against the Kiwis or an aberration remains to be seen, but there were other positives for Queensland such as the progress of rugby league convert Suliasi Vunivalu and the eye-catching performance of hard-running inside-centre Isaac Henry, who scored two tries on debut.

The rest of the results in round three, which saw the other four Australian teams losing to their Kiwi rivals by big margins, suggested the trans-Tasman gap was still fairly wide with Australia’s overall win-loss record at 1-14. And once again the challenges will be daunting for the Australian teams this weekend.

The Force will be trying to avoid another thrashing at the hands of a Crusaders team desperate for bonus points in Christchurch on Friday night, but the Reds will fancy their chances against the Blues in Brisbane.

If the Reds can muscle up against the Blues and protect the ball the way they did against the Chiefs, the home-ground advantage might be enough to tip the scales their way, but any looseness in their play will be punished by a brilliant attacking outfit.

The Highlanders will be disappointed in themselves for failing to secure an important bonus point against the Rebels and they will be looking to take out their frustration on the hapless Waratahs. The Rebels exposed some weaknesses in the Highlanders’ game last week, particularly at scrum-time, but it is difficult to see the Waratahs causing a boil-over in Dunedin.

After three hard weeks in New Zealand, the Brumbies will be delighted to be playing their first home game in the trans-Tasman competition when they host the Hurricanes in Canberra on Saturday night, but they will need every advantage to beat the men from Wellington.

If the Rebels play the way they did in patches against the Highlanders, they should be reasonably competitive against the Chiefs, without the suspended McKenzie, in Hamilton on Sunday, but something seems to happen to Australian teams as they fly across the Tasman. At least the Reds have shown the Kiwis are not invincible, although one, solitary win does not make a season.