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!
After being knocked out in the play-offs in 2012 and 2013, the 2011 champions will be eager to be amongst the title contenders in 2014.
Last year: The Reds had to settle for a place in the play-offs and like 2012, they again failed to reach the semi-finals. Their opening game ended in defeat to the Brumbies in Canberra before they registered consecutive victories against the Waratahs, Hurricanes and Rebels. The Queenslanders came crashing down to earth in Round Five, however, when they suffered a shock loss to the Western Force in Brisbane. That result didn't have a lasting impact though and they struck back in style with wins over the Bulls and Highlanders.
The Brisbane-based outfit built more momentum as the tournament progressed and their best result of the season came on the road in Round Nine when they beat defending champions the Chiefs in Hamilton. They also claimed a credible draw against the Brumbies the following week but they went off the boil when on tour in South Africa and suffered successive losses to the Cheetahs and Stormers.
2013 was the year when the Reds had Richard Graham in their coaching structure for the first time as head coach with Ewen McKenzie in the role of director of rugby. The combination seemed to work as they reached the play-offs but they battled to assert themselves against the Crusaders and suffered a 38-9 defeat away to the Christchurch-based outfit.
This year: With McKenzie now Australia's head coach, Graham is the man in charge at the Reds and he has a tough act to follow if he wants the franchise to maintain their impressive record of reaching the play-offs in each of the past four seasons. Graham has added Nick Stiles (forwards coach) and Steve Meehan (backline coach) to the staff and although they are both experienced in their respective roles they will have to hit the ground running if they want the franchise to be successful.
With a new coaching structure in place, the role of captain James Horwill - who will be out to prove a point after losing the Wallaby captaincy last season - should not be underestimated. The Reds have also lost some experienced players, none more so than Digby Ioane, who has proven in recent years to be one of the tournament's leading wings. A player of that calibre will be difficult to replace.
They kick off their campaign with four of their first five matches being away from home. It they fail to win at least two of those matches, they could be struggling for the rest of the tournament.
Players to watch: The Reds know their strength lies in their backs and in the half-back pairing of Will Genia and Quade Cooper they have two of the world's finest players in their respective positions. Genia is keen to impress as 2013 was not one of his better years. He spent a large part of last year's tournament on the sidelines with a knee injury but returned in time to play for the Wallabies against the British and Irish Lions. He suffered a dip in form, however, and the man considered by many enthusiasts as the game's best scrum-half suffered the ignominy of being dropped by the Wallabies during the Rugby Championship. Genia regained his place on Australia's end-of-year tour to Europe but will be determined to prove his undoubted class again. While Genia was struggling, Cooper's game was coming on in leaps and bounds. He has the ability to unlock the tightest defences and can change the course of a game with a moment of brilliance. His form will prove crucial and will determine how good or bad the Reds fare. Of the other players, Ben Tapuai is in a similar situation to Genia - after a below par 2013 - and will be keen to impress while big things is expected of Liam Gill. Gill is the latest in a long line of classy Australian openside flanks, whose ball-winning skill is amongst the best in the business. If he performs well consistently, he will push fellow scavengers David Pocock and Michael Hooper close for the Wallabies' number seven jersey.
Noteworthy signings: Lachie Turner (Waratahs), Jamie-Jerry Taulagi (University of Queensland)
Noteworthy losses: Radike Samo (Kintetsu Liners), Digby Ioane (Stade Français), Luke Morahan (Western Force), Jono Lance (Waratahs), Jarrad Butler (Brumbies), Adam Wallace-Harrison (retired)
Prospects: There's been changes aplenty at this franchise but the Reds have retained their core group of senior players in Horwill, Genia and Cooper. This trio will lead from the front and give direction. Graham will be under pressure as the franchise's new boss but being involved with the franchise in 2013 will prove invaluable and they should make the play-offs and even surprise some detractors by reaching the semi-finals.
22 Feb: v Brumbies - Away
01 March: v Waratahs - Away
07 March: v Cheetahs - Home
15 March: v Sharks - Away
22 March: v Lions - Away
29 March: v Stormers - Home
05 April: v Western Force - home
11 April: v Brumbies - Home
26 April: v Hurricanes - Away
02 May: v Blues - Away
11 May: v Crusaders - Home
17 May: v Rebels - Home
30 May: v Highlanders - Home
27 June: v Rebels - Away
03 July: v Western Force - Away
12 July: v Waratahs - Home