After conceding 19 tries in four straight Super Rugby losses, Queensland must muscle up and improve defensive line speed against the dangerous Highlanders.
Queensland’s patched-up backline face a monumental task to mend their leaky defence and contain Super Rugby’s form centre and the “best fullback” in the world on Friday night.
Reds coach Richard Graham has highlighted the enormity of his side’s task against the Highlanders at Suncorp Stadium by rating Ben Smith a better No.15 than Israel Folau, Israel Dagg and Leigh Halfpenny, not to mention the influence of young gun Malakai Fekitoa.
A former fullback himself, Graham likes everything he sees in All Blacks utility Smith.
While Smith starred on New Zealand’s wing last year before moving to outside centre on their European tour, he’s made a case to take over from Dagg at No.15.
He combines brilliantly in the midfield with line-busting rookie Fekitoa who has taken his chance with both hands after being let go by the Blues in the off-season.
The 22-year-old centre has six tries for the season and averages eight tackle busts a game – presenting a huge challenge to Reds midfielders Anthony Fainga’a and Ben Tapuai.
“That’s something we’ve focused on this weekend,” Graham said.
“Fekitoa at 13 has been very good and then you’ve got Ben Smith who arguably for me is probably the best fullback in the world at the moment on form,” Graham said.
“I think Smith’s ability to find space, carry the ball in two hands and set up people around him is very, very good.”
Last-placed Queensland are without four starting backline players with Quade Cooper (shoulder), Chris Feauai-Sautia (shoulder), Lachie Turner (ankle) and Aidan Toua (ankle) all injured.
Cooper’s five-eighth replacement Ben Lucas is a strong defender and experienced in the No.10 channel but it’s crucial Queensland’s backs improve their line speed to limit time and space.
The Reds have conceded 19 tries from their past four games as the dam walls have burst in the midst of their despairing six-match losing streak.
As finalists last year, they only gave up 23 tries in 16 regular-season matches when Graham was defence coach under Ewen McKenzie.
It’s been the Kiwi teams who have most exposed the chinks in the Reds’ armour in the past month, especially on the fringes of the ruck and out wider as their square attack has cashed in on the lax, drift defence.
The Highlanders, coming off an epic 32-30 loss to the Crusaders, welcome back hooker Liam Coltman from a calf injury.
His inclusion is one of three changes to the starting line-up.
Ma’afu Fia comes in at tighthead prop for Chris King, while Gareth Evans takes over at blindside flanker from Elliot Dixon.