The Queensland Reds had a pair of hookers to thank after coming from behind to grind out a 21-20 victory over the Western Force in their Super rugby opener at a sweltering Lang Park yesterday.
The Reds blew away the Force 50-10 in the corresponding fixture in the southern hemisphere’s annual provincial championship last year, but this time needed tries from Saia Faingaa and his replacement, James Hanson, to inch over the line.
James O’Connor, handed the No. 10 jersey by new Force coach Richard Graham, kicked five penalties and raced 95m for a runaway try to overshadow his opposite number, Wallaby flyhalf Quade Cooper.
However, Cooper came up with the goods when he needed to, kicking three penalties and converting Hanson’s 75th-minute try to give the Reds a slender lead that they never relinquished.
“Happy with the result, but plenty to work on,” Reds captain James Horwill, returning after a year out injured, said in a pitch-side interview. “Full credit to the Force, they are going to go a long way in this competition and they’re going to surprise a lot of teams.”
A dull first half was essentially reduced to a kicking duel between Cooper and O’Connor, with the Force flyhalf coming out on top to give his side a 12-6 halftime lead.
That the much-vaunted Reds attack had a quiet evening certainly had something to do with temperatures in the mid 30s Celsius and high humidity, but also to the David Pocock-inspired Force defense.
Openside flanker Pocock and his back row colleagues tackled and harried the Reds attackers to a standstill, repeatedly sending runners back across the gain line.
O’Connor had extended the lead to 15-9 when the Force were caught by a sucker punch in the 63rd minute, Faingaa taking the ball straight back from a lineout and racing up the line to score in the corner, firing up his team and the crowd.
Perth-based Force were on the ropes even more when Matt Hodgson was sin-binned after 67 minutes, but a minute later O’Connor pounced on a Reds error to hack the ball out of defense and race the length of the field to give the visitors a 20-14 lead.
Crucially, O’Connor missed the conversion and when Hanson emerged with the ball after the Reds had driven over the line five minutes from time, Cooper stepped up to seal the contest.
“We are bitterly disappointed, but credit to the Reds, they ground it out,” the 20-year-old O’Connor said. “For us, we stuck to structure, but a few little things got us undone, it’s not good enough.”