Super Rugby preview: Reds
With the new Super Rugby season looming large on the horizon we take a look at each of the 15 competitors. Next up, the Reds!
<b>Last year:</b> Lying in eighth position ahead of the final regular-season round, the Reds managed to jump up to third and secure a home play-off due to winning the Australian conference. Tries from Scott Higginbotham, Liam Gill, James Slipper, Dom Shipperley and Will Genia capped a strong finish to the season before they lost 17-30 to the Sharks at Suncorp Stadium. Injuries had played their part in the Reds ultimately not defending their title but despite being without James Horwill, Quade Cooper, Peter Hynes and a few others along the way, they only lost two more games in 2012 than 2011's season.
<b>This year:</b> The Reds will be without scrum-half Will Genia for the first five rounds but Ben Lucas is an able replacement at the base. They also have a new coach at the helm in Richard Graham, who quit the Force in order to work under Reds director of rugby Ewen McKenzie. The acquisition of the former Bath and Saracens staff member is a coup for the 2011 champions and we believe they are in with a shout of retaining the Australian conference. Their main challenger will be the ever-improving Brumbies while the 'Tahs and Rebels will also fancy their chances but may not yet have the consistency necessary to compete at the summit. The Reds begin in Canberra and then at home to the Waratahs and will not face the Crusaders or competition new-boys the Kings, but with Quade Cooper back from injury - and his boxing bout - they have a squad that can push hard for silverware. The big question is how much they will miss flanker Scott Higginbotham now that he has exiled to the Rebels? A lot rests on the shoulders of young openside flanker Liam Gill.
<b>Players to watch:</b> Of course fans will be keeping an eye on how <b>Quade Cooper</b> performs following his extended spell out of the game with an injury. He'll want a big season in his quest to win back the Wallaby fly-half jersey from Kurtley Beale - he may need to win over Australia coach Robbie Deans first though - so expect him to try his hand in attack. In the pack, the aforementioned <b>Liam Gill </b>is a promising player to keep an eye on while <b>Digby Ioane</b> is always entertaining. The wing does, however, need to eradicate his sloppy and all too regular handling mistakes. Failure to do so may cost him his Gold jersey this June.
<b>Noteworthy signings:</b> Jono Owen (Rebels)
<b>Noteworthy losses:</b> Scott Higginbotham (Rebels), Peter Hynes (released), Van Humphries (released), Sam Lane (Waratahs), Guy Shepherdson (released)
<b>Prospects:</b> Joint-favourites with the Brumbies to top the Australian conference in what, like last season, should be a battle until the end. The acquisition of Richard Graham to a coaching role is positive and a good combination with Ewen McKenzie could see the Reds there or there abouts in the knockout rounds. It is expected that the backline will be Genia, Cooper, Ioane, Tapuai, Faingaa, Shipperley, Morahan - with Ben Lucas, Mike Harris and Rod Davies acting as great options off the bench. Up front they're also pretty solid but one wonders whether veteran Radike Samo is capable of another full season playing at a high level at number eight. Without Scott Higginbotham, who was their second top try-scorer last term, Samo's back-up will be Jake Schatz. But without the now-Rebel we just feel they lose a lot of firepower and will fall short of topping the Australian conference behind the Brumbies.
16 February: v Brumbies - Away<br>23 February: v Waratahs - Home<br>1 March: v Hurricanes - Home<br>8 March: v Rebels - Away<br>16 March: v Force - Home<br>23 March: v Bulls - Home<br>29 March: v Highlanders - Away<br>BYE<br>13 April: v Chiefs - Away<br>20 April: v Brumbies - Home<br>26 April: v Blues - Home<br>4 May: Force - Away<br>10 May: v Sharks - Home<br>19 May: v Cheetahs - Away<br>26 May: v Stormers - Away<br>1 June: v Rebels - Home<br>BYE<br>13 July: v Waratahs - Away