Queensland Reds vs Hurricanes features battle between Harry Wilson and Ardie Savea

When Reds number 8 Harry Wilson was dropped from Dave Rennie’s Wallabies squad for November’s spring tour, a few eyebrows were raised.

Rennie wanted the 22-year-old to stay home and participate in a full pre-season with the Super Rugby side, with his own eyes focused more on the 2023 World Cup than this four-game tour.

Wilson played in all eight 2020 Wallabies Tests at No. 8 and started the 2021 campaign before falling out of favor at the selection table.

Rennie never failed to speak to him, however, and Wilson was restored to the fold when the 40-man squad reunited on the Gold Coast recently.

Wilson has shown signs that the approach has worked, with a hard-hitting start to the season. Official Super Rugby stats show he has had more runs than any other player in the competition so far this season – with 119, well ahead of next best Fergus Lee-Warner on 96. He is also the striker top-rated – and seventh overall for yards carried – just behind sixth-placed Brumbies fullback Tom Banks.

(Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

But, as with many Australian Test hopefuls, the battles are about to heat up.

On Saturday night, Wilson will face the Hurricanes with Ardie Savea – one of the best backrowers in the world – at the end of the scrum.

Wilson’s club coach Brad Thorn tried to play down the one-on-one aspect of Wilson’s game with Savea, but not the progress the Reds youngster was making.

“It’s funny – you can play each other as a No. 8 but you may not see each other the whole game,” Thorn told reporters on Friday.

“You can watch their individual games and think ‘who played well and who didn’t’, but you might not see them play each other.

“Ardie is a special player, he’s such a strong runner and at Test level he shows dominance not to mention at Super level.

“Wilso is a year older and working on his game and he’s really happy with the growth – not just what you see in football, but as a young man developing – his character.

“When you’re a player you watch games, see there’s a good player on that side and you want to compete, which is cool.

“From my side, I want Wilso to do his job, not something over the top and extra. If he does his job and brings all the great attributes he has and everyone in the team does that… Hopefully we’ll be there to compete for the win.

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With the trans Tasman leg of the competition kicking off on Friday, there has been much talk about what each team can expect from each other.

“The Reds are big physical players, so they’ll be looking to dominate us up front and from set pieces, but they also have players who can really open up the game,” said Blake Gibson of the Hurricanes.

“Cancelling their set piece and obviously their big ball carriers [will be the goal]we know they are hard to stop when they bring their big players into the game and get going.

Thorn thinks talking is cheap and isn’t about to get caught up in rash predictions.

“I don’t want to say anything,” he said. “I just know we’ve worked hard, we have huge respect for the Kiwis, but also on the other side of that belief in competing to try to win games. We’ll see in the next four or five weeks.

History suggests that his caution is well founded. The Hurricanes have won their last six meetings with the Reds, 15 of 17 in total, and have won 19 of their last 21 games against Australian sides – both losses were against the Brumbies. Queensland have lost 20 of their last 22 against Kiwi opposition.

But history aside, making the mission even more difficult for Thorn is the Reds’ injury record. The loss of Wallabies number 10 James O’Connor – the Australian Super Rugby Player of the Year 2021 – for four to six weeks comes at a terrible time, although Thorn will hope the JOC could be back for the final.

O’Connor leads the competition in kicks that were picked up by his teammates, a weapon Thorn would have hoped to use in tandem with Suli Vunivalu’s athletic jumps.

“We just got into it. James is a team driver and a test player, but Lawson just has to do his job, the others do what they do and at the end of the game we will see where he is.

O’Connor’s replacement Lawson Creighton has never started for the Reds in a Super Rugby game, and Thorn admitted that if Jordan Petaia hadn’t also been injured he could have used Jock Campbell there- low instead of #15.

“He’s been Mr. Fixit for us,” Thorn said of Creighton. “He can play anywhere. The cool thing is that 10 is his natural position – that’s where he wants to play. He’s had some good experiences – last week there were a lot of minutes, our full-backs, like Jock, play a bit like a ball player anyway.

He said Creighton and Campbell were fine and would be helped by Hamish Stewart and Hunter Paisami.

Thorn’s attitude to the injury toll was more a case of these things happening, but he suggested the club would look into why they were.

“Sometimes these things happen, but we’re definitely looking at different things and we’ll have a good review at the end of the year,” Thorn said.

“Some of them train and have had bangs, others just happen. The longer I get into the game the more I realize how widespread they can be. Big bodies around the park.

“Could we do things differently or better, around contact in training – less or more?

“It’s probably more after the season that you look at it in depth.”

There could be some relief soon with flanker Seru Uru set to return in a week, and Petaia will likely be sidelined just for the Hurricanes game.

“Obviously you want the whole team to be fit and to shoot, but that doesn’t always happen in this game – a contact sport,” Thorn said.

“We’ve just started, I’m proud of the guys, different guys have stepped in. There’s good energy in the squad and I’m looking forward to the tough challenges ahead.”

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