That 2011 Red vintage was something special and the transformation of fortunes from a caustic throat choking swill that caused me to spit bile only three years ago to the robust liquid gold that culminated in the inaugural Super 15 championship last year was an experience worthy of cellaring. This has been done with the members DVD of the final and post-match celebration. Unfortunately the Super 15 success was not transferred up the vine at national levels but a core of Red players were transformed from wallabies not in consideration to demanding selection. This blooded a whole swag of players at the higher level and despite not delivering Bill the experience for the Reds cannot be dismissed.
Well 2012 is going to be tough. Firstly, the Reds will be used as the bench mark for the opening rounds and every side will want to beat them. Secondly, Cooper is injured and thirdly despite increasing the length of the season the squad size has been shrunk with new rules applied to bringing in players from outside the dictated roster of 30 squad members and 5 wider squad player. Well points two and three will once again demonstrate McKenzie’s tactically astute selections to bring the best out of the squad. McKenzie’s ability to fine tune the squad by a couple of slight changes to the squad but it’s his ability to have the players enjoying playing rugby and giving them the vital ingredient in any successful side, self-belief. The fact that the bulk of the squad has stayed together suggests harmony and that they believe in where the side is going. Compare this to the traditional end of season mad rush for the door that plagued the Reds for over a decade and well I’m still slapping myself.
McKenzie’s main task is to unlock the vital 5/8 key. Cooper is that rare talent in attack who can on his day destroy a defensive line. Yes defensive questions exist but I thought he was poorly used in international land. Last years’ semi-final against the Blues is a prime example where Cooper toyed, teased and broke Jafa’s hearts in a superb attacking display that had the home ground spectators gasping with disbelief and ecstasy. Cooper is out until round 6 and then he will take a few weeks to get back to his best. So the battle for the 5/8 spot is still wide open at this stage with McKenzie playing his normal coy answers leaving everyone guessing to what his plans are. So far he has nominated that one of these four Mike Harris, Ben Lucas, Dallan Murphy (extended squad member) and Jono Lance is in with a chance of securing the starting role. The final choice will be made after the upcoming trial matches. But all I know is that each of these players will give it their all as they know if they stumble a reshuffle will occur. I will be expecting at least one of these players to be on the bench and at least to be running out.
So overall the team will be better than last year as they have stayed together, they have more experience at a higher level which increases the depth of the squad. McKenzie’s ability to adapt tactics not only between games but within a game is backed up by the squad’s ability to deliver on the plan makes them very difficult to stop. But opposings sides will be gunning for them and as in all cases you always play your best game against the front runners and if the Reds fail to turn up they will get rolled.
NSW will provide the toughest games in the Australian conference. NSW look bloody strong and the new spark of Foley in charge (NSW has a QLD coach and visa versa, who would have predicted that 10 years ago?). The Reds should however, be able to top the conference and then make the finals. But unless they wrack up a lot of away games while on tour the failure to get the home ground advantage may cost them come finals time.
How will the season really end up? All I know is that I will get a full dose in equal measures of heartburn, ecstasy, euphoria and anguish as I enjoy my season membership at Lang Park watching QLD play the game they play in heaven.