Rugby Union

License article

Avoiding Shark bite would be Reds' legacy dream come true

There is a stubborn theory subscribed to by some in two-thirds of the SANZAR territories that the Reds got lucky last year.

Topping the Australian conference provided a smooth pathway to the final, the critics say, where they met a Crusaders side that had run out of emotional energy following a season of packing suitcases and worrying about families at home.

You can discount such talk if the Reds keep the title in the cabinet in this year. If last year's achievements secured a title, this year's would secure a legacy: a place among the elite sides in Super Rugby history. This will have to be done the hard way. The Sharks side they face tomorrow night is the pick of the South African bunch.

It is a measure of their quality that they can go to Suncorp Stadium, a fortress, and regard a victory as a possibility rather than just as an aspiration. And it is a sign of Queensland's concern that they have been muttering about the ''process'' in relation to Quade Cooper's one-week ban, with an appeal apparently having been seriously considered before ultimately being ruled out last night.

Someone at the Reds must have a sense of humour. They finished sixth and get to host a home final, while two sides that finished above them must jump on a plane. Two weeks ago they conceded eight penalties in their own 22 and avoided a yellow card. They have not had the rough end of the SANZAR stick.

Still, if there is any anxiety in Brisbane it at least acknowledges the size of the challenge ahead. Work through the statistics of these two teams and there are more similarities than differences. Their use of pass-run-kick options is almost identical.


Class fills the Sharks' ranks. JP Pietersen is in rare form and while ''Beast'' Mtawarira's open-field surges are less frequent these days, his set-piece work has improved. Pat Lambie is a loss but it is Freddie Michalak who has been pulling the strings from No.10 during their best games. But pay particular attention to the back row. History tells us of the importance of the men who don the numbers 6 to 8. Scour through previous Super champions and you will not find anything but excellence among the loose forwards. At this level they are more important than a big scrum.

The familiar faces are all there for John Plumtree's side. Ryan Kankowski, Keegan Daniel and Willem Alberts. But it is South Africa's find of the season, Marcell Coetzee, who has been their dynamo. The surplus of talent gives them some tactical flexibility, too. Alberts has played Test rugby in the second row, allowing all four to be involved at the same time.

Coetzee has more reason than most to be motivated on Australian soil. He is best remembered for starring in Dean Mumm's finest YouTube moment than his own abilities. Coetzee was the unfortunate soul upended by an unlikely Mumm fend earlier in the season. It was a deeply unflattering portrait.

Against the Bulls two weeks ago, Coetzee made 23 tackles, 16 runs and six offloads. That's a better representation of his quality.

Those sort of numbers lay behind Heyneke Meyer's decision to hand him the openside role for the Springboks against England for their three-game series, at the expense of Heinrich Brussow.

Lovers of the philosophies behind the game will have noted the clash with the Australian model. For all Coetzee's qualities, he is no jackal in the mode of Liam Gill. Carrying is his speciality, rather than pilfering, and the same can be said for Daniel. The Sharks rank 12th for the number of ruck and maul steals this year. Brussow himself caused them all manner of grief in the first half of the Sharks v Cheetahs game last week and the fixture swung on his injury-enforced departure. During the third Springboks v England Test, the visitors had the better performers at the breakdown. There is an opportunity there for the brilliant Gill and the Reds in this clash of styles.

The Faingaa brothers, more than capable of causing havoc at the breakdown, also have roles to play. Scott Higginbotham, who cannot seem to shake criticisms over his workrate, must also confront Alberts at the gainline. There are some tasty subplots.

The scriptwriters demand that the Reds go into the semi-finals. A return to New Zealand, and to Waikato, awaits Quade Cooper if the Reds win and the Crusaders beat the Bulls. But there are warning signs all over this Sharks game.

Twitter -@whiskeycully