AFTER a year in which not much went wrong for the Reds, the most-asked question in Australian rugby is how will a Quade-less Queensland go in 2012?
Quade Cooper, the enigmatic Wallaby from the Waikato, was the difference between winning and losing in many Reds games last year. Sometimes, the reason they lost, but more often than not the reason they won.
The knee injury he suffered at Eden Park against Wales during the World Cup means the Reds face another two months before he's available and if ever you wanted to replace cheese with chalk, coach Ewen McKenzie has done that for game one against the Waratahs in Sydney tomorrow night.
It's a New Zealand-born player again (they keep arriving), Mike Harris, who has first dibs at steering the ship.
While Cooper disregarded both compass and tides, Harris is likely to negotiate a safer, more textbook passage through the 80 minutes.
And although you never want a proven match-winner to miss the boat, there may be some upside for the Reds in Cooper's enforced absence. They're a young side, average age 24, but after the style they played last season and the success they enjoyed, with Cooper calling the tune, there may have been the temptation to try to become rugby's Harlem Globetrotters.
Too smart by half will not cut it long term in Super 15 rugby, and perhaps the necessity to play a slightly more structured game will add a string to the Queensland bow that might not have been plucked with a fit Cooper.
With a pack that is almost exclusively made up of Wallabies, structure shouldn't bother the Reds one little bit and the confidence they'll have gained, not only from their Super 15 success but also their exposure to international rugby, means they should be heavy favourites against the Waratahs.
Only they're not. Somehow, the bookmakers have decided homeground advantage for New South Wales and no Cooper for Queensland overrides every other factor in the pre-game analysis.
The Reds have the same coach who took them to the title; they suffered few defections in the off-season; and pretty well every one of their main men, bar the number 10, is fit and rearing to go.
The Waratahs have a new coach in Michael Foley, his first season as head honcho after several stints with various teams as an assistant. They've lost their most potent attacking weapon, fullback Kurtley Beale; their talismanic halfback Luke Burgess is in France; and they have an injury list that reads like a who's who of their most experienced and dangerous players.
Lock Dan Vickerman is on the cusp of retirement through a leg injury, winger Lachie Turner is gone with hamstring problems, and Drew Mitchell is also facing a few weeks on the sideline. How that all adds up to favouritism has baffled everyone bar the bookies and the parents of the Waratahs players.
If ever a favourite looked ready to be beaten, this might be the time. Sport, being sport, the Reds might not win tomorrow night, but it's impossible to see how they're not expected to.
Looking beyond tomorrow night, the Reds should have the depth to be a near-certainty for the top six and, given luck on the injury front, a second successive title is not a pipe dream.
Under Foley, the Waratahs will show up every single week and the addition of Adam Ashley-Cooper is a bonus, but they don't have enough quality to secure their first Super rugby title.
Jake White may have won a World Cup with South Africa, but if he can lift the Brumbies anywhere above the bottom half of the ladder, he's a genius. They simply don't have the experience.
The Force too will struggle. David Pocock and Nathan Sharpe ensure a competitive pack but the backline won't scare too many teams.
James O'Connor's move from Perth to Melbourne ensures an exciting Rebels backline with Beale and Danny Cipriani, and with a promising pack and a new defence coach in John Muggleton to fill the holes they showed last year, the Rebels might surprise.
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