Queensland Reds coach Richard Graham says a trip to face the NSW Waratahs without star flanker Liam Gill will be a perfect test of the new-look Super Rugby side’s resilience.
In a bitter blow for the Reds on the eve of the new season, reigning club best and fairest Gill will miss the next four weeks due to a lower back stress fracture.
Team doctors are stumped as they are unable to trace the cause of the injury – one that Graham described as more likely to strike down a fast bowler rather than an openside flanker – other than to say it has come from an accumulated training load.
Without Gill’s presence at the breakdown, the Reds – already rank outsiders – will be at even longer odds to overcome the Waratahs and their own turnover king Michael Hooper.
But the absence of the 23-year-old could also play on the minds of a youthful and unheralded Queensland team, which has been given next to no chance of making the Super Rugby finals by pundits and bookies.
Graham admitted making sure his players don’t drop their heads following Gill’s injury will be a “real focus” for him and his coaching staff.
“The reality is he’s a good footballer, but there’s a lot of good footballers in that side,” said Graham, who needs a strong start to the Super Rugby campaign to douse constant speculation about his future.
“You’ve got to build the belief and confidence within the group. The game’s about being resilient.
“Every team takes plenty of kicks, but you’ve got to be strong enough to work through that. Saturday night’s a good test.”
Curtis Browning has been named at No.7, with Hendrik Tui and Jake Schatz rounding out the back row. Another flanker, Lolo Fakaosilea (hamstring), is also unavailable.
Meanwhile, Graham has justified his decision to hand the No.15 jersey to Karmichael Hunt instead of Japanese World Cup sensation Ayumu Goromaru, saying the code-hopper “deserves” the opportunity.
Ace goalkicker Goromaru is 100 per cent fit and ready to play, but is set to make his first club appearance outside of Japan’s Top League off the bench, with Hunt preferred as a starter due to his strong pre-season.
“He’s had a good couple of weeks in terms of his introduction into the squad – probably a little bit further along at this point of time,” Graham said.
“He’ll certainly play. What amount of time, I’m not sure.”
Queensland Reds: Karmichael Hunt, Chris Feauai-Sautia, Samu Kerevi, Henry Taefu, Eto Nabuli, Jake McIntyre, Nick Frisby, Jake Schatz, Curtis Browning, Hendrik Tui, Rob Simmons (capt), Cadeyrn Neville, Greg Holmes, Saia Fainga’a, Ben Daley. Reserves: Andrew Ready, Sef Fa’agase, Sam Talakai, Ben Matwijow, Michael Gunn, Scott Gale, Sam Greene, Ayumu Goromaru.