The Queensland Reds have copped a huge blow on the eve of the Super Rugby season with flanker Liam Gill sidelined for a month due to a back injury.
Gill is the club’s reigning best and fairest and was by far their standout player last season, but will miss Saturday’s clash with the NSW Waratahs and then matches against the Western Force (home), Melbourne Rebels (away) and Blues (home).
He has a stress fracture in his lower back and is also recovering from a shoulder issue.
It is the last thing embattled coach Richard Graham needs as he seeks a strong start to the Super Rugby campaign to douse constant speculation about his future.
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 star flanker, Michael Hooper.
Curtis Browning has been named at No.6, with Japanese international Hendrik Tui and Jake Schatz rounding out the back row, with another flanker, Lolo Fakaosilea (hamstring), also ruled out.
Queensland’s star import Ayumu Goromaru has been named on the bench with Karmichael Hunt the starting fullback, while Jake McIntyre and Nick Frisby will start in the halves.
Inside centre Henry Taefu and winger Eto Nabuli, a former NRL player with St George Illawarra, are also poised to make their Super Rugby debuts at Allianz Stadium, with ex-Rebels lock Cadeyrn Neville also to pull on Reds colours for the first time.
“We’ve put in a lot of hard work as a group over the last three and a half months building a physical foundation, developing our game play and coming together as a squad,” Graham said.
“We’ve spent the pre-season focused very much on ourselves and what we want to get out of the new season.
“This Saturday is our first opportunity to demonstrate that and the squad are looking forward to the occasion down in Sydney.
“While we have four guys making their Super Rugby debut on Saturday, they come with varying experience that has served them well to this point.”
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.