Will Sharks defy history?

2012-07-21 00:00

IT has been a campaign of thrills and spills for the Sharks, but they will have to play out of their skins if they are to defy history, jet lag and the bookies by beating the Reds in the Super Rugby quarter-final at the Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane today.

Playing at home in the playoffs, particularly against an overseas team, is a massive advantage in this competition. Compounding the Sharks’ problems is the Reds’ record at Suncorp Stadium where they have won 21 of their last 23 games.

The Sharks have shown excellent late-season form at home, but they have been less impressive on the road, losing five away games this season.

They will also miss the talents of Pat Lambie at fullback and the powerful influence of Frans Steyn in midfield, but this has, to a degree, been offset by the suspension of the flamboyant Reds’ flyhalf Quade Cooper. Certainly the Reds have improved markedly since Cooper recently returned from injury and rejoined the lively Wallaby scrumhalf Will Genia.

There is a suggestion that the Reds, in not immediately appealing Cooper’s banning, could be underrating the Sharks’ challenge. It appears they were more concerned about Cooper’s suspension being increased, resulting in him missing next week’s semi-final against the Chiefs in Hamilton, if they risked going back to the boardroom.

But their problems could be more immediate, and if the Sharks can reproduce the physical and mental strength they showed recently when downing the Stormers and Bulls, we could be treated to a monumental upset with the Reds’ season ending today.

John Plumtree’s plan will obviously be to place the Reds pack, and the creative Genia, under pressure. There were lessons for both teams in their fourth-round meeting at King’s Park in mid-March.

The Reds, dominant in the scrum and lineout, running the ball into space and with Genia finding yawning gaps around the fringes, were on their way to a landslide victory in the first half. They led 17-0 after half-an-hour, but the game changed shortly before half time and in the next 45 minutes the Sharks out-scored the Super Rugby champions.

Injuries and a yellow card for Wallaby wing Digby Ioane played a role, but the Sharks, by getting in among the Reds forwards, harassed and hurried their way to a 27-22 win.

Coach Plumtree will be looking for a repeat of the second half from the off today. Without Steyn to punch holes in midfield, his big ball-carriers among the forwards (Willem Alberts, Bismarck du Plessis, Marcell Coetzee, Beast Mtawarira and Ryan Kankowski) have bruising roles to play in creating the go-forward, which is key to their momentum rugby.

A week ago, Bok and Cheetahs flank Heinrich Brüssow, before leaving the field injured, bothered the Sharks at the breakdown. The Reds are looking to the talented Australian U20 captain and flank, Liam Gill, to perform a similar role in slowing up the Sharks’ possession and breaking their rhythm.

The Sharks will also look to their Bok front-row to control the scrums, but the streetwise Reds have ways of frustrating the strongest of packs.

While the Sharks were able to name their side on Wednesday, the Reds only released their line-up yesterday when Ben Lucas was confirmed as Cooper’s replacement in the only change to the team that started against the Waratahs a week back.

Reds coach Ewen McKenzie said the players had every confidence in Lucas.

“Ben has been training at 10 [flyhalf] all week and the guys around him are very comfortable with the direction he gives the team, as he has gained plenty of experience in the playmaking role during the past two seasons,” McKenzie said.

Plumtree said a “huge challenge” awaited the Sharks with victory taking them into a semi-final derby game against the log-leading Stormers at Newlands next Saturday. They cannot afford to look that far ahead.

“There’s home ground advantage [and the backing of a 50 000 crowd] for the Reds, which is a big factor,” said Plumtree. “But we have to make sure that we play to our own game plan and really take it to them.

“We can’t afford to play behind the advantage line against them while defence is also vital. We will have to be on the money.”

Indeed, they will. But this is the type of challenge which has brought out the very best in the Sharks in recent years and they certainly have the talent to take this play-off to the wire.

TEAMS

Reds: 15 Luke Morahan, 14 Dom Shipperley, 13 Anthony Faingaa, 12 Mike Harris, 11 Digby Ioane, 10 Ben Lucas, 9 Will Genia (c), 8 Scott Higginbotham, 7 Liam Gill, 6 Jake Schatz, 5 Adam Wallace-Harrison, 4 Rob Simmons, 3 James Slipper, 2 Saia Faingaa, 1 Greg Holmes.

Replacements: 16 James Hanson, 17 Ben Daley, 18 Radike Samo, 19 Beau Robinson, 20 Jarrad Butler, 21 Nick Frisby, 22 Ben Tapuai.

Sharks: 15 Louis Ludik, 14 JP Pietersen, 13 Paul Jordaan, 12 Tim Whitehead, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Frederic Michalak, 9 Charl McLeod, 8 Ryan Kankowski, 7 Marcell Coetzee, 6 Keegan Daniel (c), 5 Anton Bresler, 4 Willem Alberts, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1 Tendai Mtawarira.

Replacements: 16 Craig Burden, 17 Wiehahn Herbst, 18 Steven Sykes, 19 Jacques Botes, 20 Cobus Reinhach, 21 Meyer Bosman, 22 Odwa Ndungane.

Referee: Jonathan Kaplan (SA). Kick-off: 11.40 am.

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