Dejected in defeat: Reds players Scott Higginbotham, Beau Robinson, Mike Harris and James Hanson. Photo: AFP
The Queensland Reds finished their Super Rugby campaign last night as they had played most of the season – in plan B.
The Reds’ title defence came to an abrupt end at the hands of an uncompromising Sharks side, which ran out a 30-17 winner at Suncorp Stadium last night.
As with the round four encounter between the two sides in Durban, the Reds’ curse at No.10 forced Queensland into a mid-game reshuffle when Ben Lucas, himself a fill-in for suspended Wallaby Quade Cooper, went down with an ankle injury in the 20th minute.
Louis Ludik of the Sharks brings down Mike Harris of the Reds. Photo: AP
A litany of handling errors also put the game on a platter for the visitors, with the Reds dropping 13 balls in the first half alone.
Nonetheless, Lucas’s injury was an expensive blow for the Reds, who had been battered in the early exchanges by a Sharks side that had paid little attention to the home side’s heavy pre-game favouritism.
Sharks swallow Reds' final hopes
A Queensland Reds side without Quade Cooper has been eliminated after their 30-17 Super Rugby semi-final loss to the Sharks. Photo: Getty Images
The Sharks now face the Stormers next weekend for a spot in the final.
If they come out of the blocks in Cape Town like they did in Brisbane last night, they will like their chances of upsetting the competition pace-setters.
By the time Lucas was helped from the field, forcing skipper Will Genia to five eighth and 19-year-old Nick Frisby to scrumhalf, the South Africans had ambushed the Reds with a penalty goal to Frederic Michalak and a try to winger JP Pietersen.
Tendai Mtawarira of the Sharks celebrates after his side downed the Reds to advance to a semi-final with fellow South African team, the Stormers. Photo: AP
It was an opening period that Sharks coach John Plumtree and Genia agree turned the match.
“We were just poor,” Genia said.
“If you look at the very start of the game we started really well. We were in their 22 looking to build pressure and then just (made) mistakes.
“We lost it in that first period. It’s hard chasing the game when you’re 17-0 down."
The Reds mounted a fierce comeback in the second half, which was defused when the video official disallowed a pushover try in the 57th minute after the Reds had enjoyed a mountain of possession on the Sharks’ line.
The result leaves the Super Rugby finals without an Australian team, after the Crusaders beat the Bulls 28-13 yesterday to book a date with the Chiefs next week.
Plumtree, who had caused a stir earlier in the week with his criticism of the strength of the Australian Super Rugby conference, said it was one of the best wins his side had managed in recent seasons.
“The way we played in the first half was outstanding,” he said.
“To win away from home like that in a place like this was always going to be a big effort. What was it, 21 wins out of 23 games here? We knew they’d come into this game with a lot of belief with a big crowd behind them, so we had to start pretty well.
“In the end we just had to hang on in the second half because we didn’t have much possession.”
The Reds suffered another blow in the middle of the first half when Wallabies hooker Saia Faingaa left the field with a corked biceps.
Reds coach Ewen McKenzie said while the injuries had taken a toll on the side, it was a situation he had become used to in an injury-plagued season.
“We trained really well this week and organised and had a plan,” he said.
“Like we’ve learnt this year, we’ve always got plan B and C. Will going to 10, well Will went to 10 last time we played these guys.
“We were prepared, we had different coverage scenarios and that was one of them.”
Plumtree agreed Lucas’s injury had been damaging, but said he was surprised McKenzie had opted for Genia at five-eighth and not inside centre Mike Harris.
“I was a little bit surprised they didn’t put Harris at 10 and leave Will at nine,” he said.
“Will tried to be the playmaker and that allowed us into the game because he was throwing a lot of skip passes and stuff. It was actually a big blow for them, I believe, losing Quade for a start and then losing Lucas in a replica of what happened in Durban.”
Tries to JP Pietersen, Paul Jordaan and Charl McLeod did the damage for the visitors, while Frederic Michalak kicked three conversions, two penalties and a drop goal.
Genia and Radike Samo crossed for the Reds, with Harris kicking a conversion and a penalty and Genia one conversion.