by Juan Cote
If you were standing near the Ballymore exits at the end of last season you would have been in serious danger of being injured in a stampede; such was the exodus of players heading into either full-time retirement or semi-retirement on the European club scene.
Although there was plenty of deadwood cut from the ranks, there still remains some massive holes that will not be filled this year – Latho, Squeeky Moore, Rodzilla and Cordingley the obvious names. Add to that the retirements of John Roe and Crofty and you get some idea of the void left in the talent and experience stakes.
Recruitment for 2009 seems to have been a fairly eclectic affair, perhaps underlying the fact that the Reds aren’t exactly a ‘first choice employer’ for players in this part of the world. The ‘big’ signing for the Reds was that of All Black Daniel Braid, a good move that will cover for the loss of Croft and give the Reds some much needed experience in the forwards.
The two-for-one signing of the Faingaa twins, Saia and Anthony, from the Brumbies was a surprise but not half as much as the signing of Mark McLinden from UK league – not too sure what the rationale behind that one is? A promising No.8 from Otago named Ezra Taylor is an interesting gain, injured quite badly last season he will be looking to displace Leroy Houston who was one of the Reds’ best toward the end of last season.
The other new boys are a mixture of ‘pups’ from various academy sides as well tight-head prop Laurie Weeks from the much lauded Sydney University scrum and fullback Rodney Davies from the Brisbane Broncos. Davies was an Ipswich Grammar School rugby prodigy (as was Berrick Barnes) who spent a year with the Broncos junior team and may well find himself as first choice fullback to start the season.
The Reds look like being one front-row injury away from oblivion – only two Props and one Hooker who are up to Super 14 standard. Pressure will be on Saia Faingaa to provide reasonable back-up to Sean Hardman while Dayna Edwards and Greg Holmes are the only experienced props. With James Horwill unavailable until mid-Super 14, the Reds second-row stocks are also thin. It will be up to either youngster Rob Simmons or Waratahs academy signing Adam Brynes to provide back-up to Hugh McMeniman and Van Humphries until Horwill returns to the fray.
The back-row will be a positive for the Reds with the likes of Braid, Taylor and Houston as well as the West’s Bulldogs triumvirate of McMeniman, Scott Higginbotham and Tasi Luafutu providing plenty of options for Phil Mooney as well as cover for injuries. The Reds forwards weren’t disgraced last season however it remains to be seen what impact the loss of Moore, Blake, Roe and Croft has on the consistency of the pack this year.
When you look at the up and coming back-line talent in Australian Rugby at the moment, most of that talent is concentrated in Queensland. Berrick Barnes, Quade Cooper, Peter Hynes and Digby Ioane were the biggest Wallaby improvers in 2008 and when you add Ben Lucas’ name to that list – who would have toured with the Wallabies but for injury – it makes fairly impressive reading.
Half-back is a concern with only Lucas and Will Genia being specialists, an injury to either could see Barnes having to spend time filling in which would diminish the Reds attacking effectiveness.
Full-back is a position where there is no clear choice, the contenders are Davies, McLinden or academy graduate Aidan Toua, none of which inspire tremendous confidence. It may come down to Hynes to fill the role however this seems unlikely due to Mooney’s reluctance to play him anywhere but wing. The Reds only scored one ‘4 try’ bonus point last season however this year the backs look as though they could be a real attacking force, provided they get decent ball that is.
It is hard to see the Reds finishing any better than mid table given the upheaval that has taken place over the off-season and the amount of talent that has left the side. A fully fit Reds outfit reads very well on paper however the chances of a team going through a season without injuries is non-existent. Depth in the front-row, half-back and full-back positions are a major risk and when added to the general lack of experienced players, the Reds will lack the fire power to win the ‘big ones’.
Last year the Reds only managed three wins however they also drew one match and lost another three by less than seven points. This year the Reds realistically can win all their home games (6) and maybe sneak another couple on the road (the Waratahs game for sure!!) which would give them about 32 points, give or take.
Best Match-day Squad
4. Horwill (c)