2013 Season Preview: QUEENSLAND REDS
by Paul Cook & Brendan Bradford –
The Queensland Reds came into the 2012 season as reigning champions and with high expectations of backing up their success, however, a crippling injury toll, particularly in key positions, robbed them of any real chance to perform to their very best and in the end, it was an achievement just to reach the finals series after pipping the Brumbies to the Australian conference top spot on the last day of the regular season.
Their injury enforced fragility was exposed by the Sharks in week one of the finals but that experience has only helped to fuel an even greater desire for success and to re-establish themselves as the premier side in the competition. What the injury crisis did offer was valuable experience to a group of highly promising young players to which the Reds will entrust their future and all the signs are that they will be in good hands.
While the return of talismanic skipper James Horwill to the fold usurps any potential addition they could have made, recruitment has been sparse with only Jono Owen from the Brumbies and promising club rugby front-rower Albert Anae, coming on board while their only loss of note was that of Wallaby Scott Higginbotham to the Rebels. The biggest change is the introduction of ex-Western Force head coach Richard Graham, to the coaching staff and the former Reds player is sure to bring much to the table in terms of ideas, passion and work ethic.
James Hanson is embarking on his fourth season at Ballymore and will be hoping to further enhance a profile that was raised significantly by his performances last year and ended with a test debut against the All Blacks, while a player still dreaming of a chance to wear the Green & Gold is lock, Adam Wallace-Harrison. The 33yr old was in the form of his life with the Reds last year as he stepped into the giant hole left by the injured James Horwill and he sees 2013 as perhaps his last shot at international recognition.
Rugby News chatted to both recently to discuss the up-coming Super Rugby season and find out how the Reds are aiming up in their quest to regain their 2011 title.
Last year was a testing season in the sense that you were trying to back up as reigning champions and you suffered from a horrendous injury toll. How do you look back on it now?
James Hanson: “We had a fair few of the tens fall over. There was a bit of a curse on the jersey for a while and even Willy Genia was playing there at the end but that all just makes us stronger for this year. There were a few up and down moments but it’s always a positive looking forward and with guys like Jono Lance, Benny Lucas and Mike Harris there as well, there’s plenty of options in that ten jersey.”
Adam Wallace-Harrison: “Obviously injuries didn’t help but having said that, all the Australian teams had injuries. I can only judge the Reds but we were able to come through that injury period and get our game and our season back on track. I think that came through great coaching and was a testament to the character of the group. There was no back-stabbing or blame, we just got on with the job and were fortunate enough to string some wins together when it counted and scrape into the finals.”
It was a pretty good achievement to still finish top of the conference and get that far wasn’t it?
AW-H: “Yeah, I think so. Getting the top of the conference was a pretty big achievement because the last three or four games were must wins and they were by no means easy games, so we came together well as a group and got the points we required. However, we were disappointed by the way we went out when we lost to the Sharks, we thought we should have put in a better effort.”
Are you confident that you have a greater depth this year to cover an injury crisis if it happened again?
AW-H: “I think so, we’ve got a wider training group, an extended Reds squad that’s bolstered by a few club players training with us through the off-season. They’re guys that are just doing it because they’re hungry and they’ve learnt our systems and our plays and they’re ready to go. We’re very conscious that it is going to be a long year – especially with the Lions tour –and injuries will happen, so hopefully those measures are in place so players can come in and find their feet.”
JH: “A few guys stepped up last year and that only gave them confidence to back their ability and go up a level this year. They’ll be better for that and when you get guys back fit there’ll be selection dramas and competition for those spots. The coaches are confident and the players are confident in their own ability to play at that level so that’ll be in our favour this year.”
The Reds have recruited less than any of the Australian sides, which indicates that the coaches were pretty happy with the existing roster and that people don’t want to leave because they enjoy the culture and they foresee more success, agreed?
AW-H: “I think both those points are important. It’s been well publicised that guys are staying for less money but people are well aware that the environment and what we’re doing at Queensland rugby is very enjoyable and it’s very nice to be a part of. Bar Scott Higginbotham, we’ve got the same squad, so injuries aside, there’s nothing to say we can’t be thereabouts again and that’s why you play footy isn’t it? One it’s for enjoyment and two it’s for success, so to be on top of both of those, why would you leave?”
What are the early impressions of the new coaching structure, has it changed at all?
JH: “To be honest, nothing much has changed. The name tags have been changed and things like that but the hierarchy for us is still the same. Ewen is still in charge of the rugby program and while Richard Graham is head coach, he sort of takes over that defensive role. Jim McKay’s still there in attack so not much changes.
AW-H: “Richard Graham adds a different dimension and different ideas, particularly in defence which is great. He’s certainly a very thorough coach, one of those who’s first to arrive and last to leave and he leaves no stone unturned. It’s also good because although we haven’t had a big change in personnel, you’re hearing different ideas and different opinions through new coaches. It freshens the place up a bit.”
How has your pre-season gone?
JH: “It’s been great. Our strength and conditioning staff have done a great job, it’s been tough but I guess the good to come out of it is that we’re efficient. We haven’t been going out there breaking ourselves, training’s been hard and we’ve been getting results without breaking down. The last few years we’ve had a fair few injuries and that’s been a key focus this pre-season, doing everything you can to maintain your body throughout the year.”
Trial form is never a true indication of how a side is travelling but do you think a few boxes were ticked in the hit-outs you’ve had against the Blues and the Chiefs?
AW-H: “No doubt. We deliberately chose to play against quality New Zealand opposition because we knew they’d stretch our defence with a pretty expansive game and although I don’t think the scoreline against the Chiefs (the Reds lost 20-8) was a true indication of the game, they are the benchmark as the incumbent champions and they play a similar style to us, so it was a good test. We took a lot out of those trials.”
What does it mean for the Reds to have a player like James Horwill back on deck this year in terms of his leadership and contributions as a player, especially in Will Genia’s absence?
AW-H: “I pity the first guy he hits because he’s had nine months of frustration and he’s as strong as ever. He’s one diligent guy and he’s done everything he possibly could to get as fit as he could and I’d have money on him for first away try scorer. His leadership and his presence is a massive bonus for us, we need guys to run those tough lines and do the hard yards and he’s your man. He’s invaluable.”
There appears to be a nice balance between youth and experience at the Reds?
JH: “It’s a good mix, if it wasn’t for those older blokes the average age of the team would be much lower, especially with Radike Samo being 40-something or however old he is! That’s the good thing, Link’s [Ewen McKenzie] prepared to make the decision that he’ll just bring someone in and he has confidence in the whole squad.”
AW-H: “I acknowledge that I am old – or older – than most in our team, apart from Radike and yes, the fountain of youth keeps flowing up in Queensland! The majority of guys are very young but we’ve got a lot of Wallabies and guys who’ve been playing Super Rugby for a long time so I don’t’ think experience is an issue. I certainly enjoy doing what I can to help out the guys on and off the field but I don’t really think they need much help.”
You start with local derbies against the Brumbies and the Waratahs, how important are they going to be in terms of the Australian conference and in setting down a marker for the season?
JH: “It’s massive. All the derby games are important but particularly at the start of the season because of the British and Irish Lions tour. The way our draw is set out at the front half of the season, we’ve only got one bye so we’re really going to have to be on our game and hit the ground running rather than starting well and going on a bit of a rollercoaster.”
AW-H: “We really need two wins there because history says they’ll be the ones competing for the top of the Aussie conference. The Brumbies will be incredibly tough then we’ve got to back it up for the Waratahs and if there’s one team you always want to beat, it’s the Waratahs. They’ll be looking to hit the ground running and although they weren’t that good last year, I do think that on paper, they’ll be the ones breathing down our neck.”
On a personal level James, you made your test debut against the All Blacks last year, what are your goals for this season?
JH: “I’ve managed to get my first taste of Test rugby and that’s always the pinnacle of the sport, to represent your country. To make my test debut against the All Blacks in my home stadium, in front of my family and friends and against Keven Mealamu who was playing his 100th game and alongside Nathan Sharpe, who was playing his last game at Suncorp, is a memory I’ll always cherish. I want to be doing everything I can to do that again, which means playing as much as I can and as well as I can for the Reds and that’s a challenge in itself.”
With your form last year Adam, there were calls for test recognition, is that still an ambition of yours?
AW-H: “That was a big drive for me coming back from Japan. To achieve the success we did in 2011 at the Reds ticked a big box for me but I’ve always wanted to play for my country. I don’t know if it will be the last opportunity I get to play for the Wallabies but I see this year as being the big opportunity to do that. The Lions series is a big carrot and Queensland is fortunate enough to play them so hopefully I’ll get a run there but it would be even better to do it with a gold jersey on your back.”
The Australian conference looks like being hugely competitive this year given the off-season moves between players and coaches, who will be your main rivals?
JH: “They’re all looking pretty competitive. The conference copped a little bit for it’s strength or lack of it last year but if you look at the playing rosters and the competition for positions in each team, it’s really up for grabs for anyone. The teams that haven’t gone well have got strength in their squads and it should be a good competition and those rivalries should be great occasions.”
AW-H: “I would say the Waratahs but it’s just so hard. You look at the Rebels, they’ve got some quality players in that organisation and if they can get them all on the park, they’re going to be good. The Brumbies come in off the back of their momentum last year and with David Pocock going there as well so I would say they’re all hard but purely because of their playing list and the appointment of Michael Cheika, probably the Waratahs.”
How about the across the competition generally – who do you like the look of in New Zealand and South Africa?
AW-H: “It’s going to be interesting to see how the Crusaders go without Richie McCaw but they’re always going to be strong. I think the Highlanders are going to be the ones to watch, they’ve recruited well and they’ve always been hard to beat, so if they can maintain form throughout the year, I expect them and the Chiefs to be the top two for New Zealand. In South Africa, the Bulls will be strong and I suppose the Stormers. The Sharks are just one of those teams that always seem hot and cold but they’ve earned the right to be contenders again.”
JH: “I think the Chiefs and any of the previous winners will be up there but to be honest, I’m just focusing on the Reds at the moment.”