Reds sneak home against Highlanders
Wallabies five-eighth Quade Cooper played his best game of 2012 as Queensland kept their Super Rugby title defence alive with a nail-biting 19-13 win over the Highlanders on Friday night.
The Reds almost gave up a 16-point second-half lead before escaping with a penultimate-round victory with three minutes of gutsy defence on fulltime at Suncorp Stadium.
The desperate Highlanders attacked the line over multiple phases but a string of try-saving tackles, including two by man-of-the-match Cooper, saved the day before Jake Schatz produced a ruck turnover.
Their fifth straight win moves Queensland into the top six with just their last-round match against arch-rivals NSW to come on Saturday week.
A loss would have virtually been curtains for the home side who would have dropped to eighth.
Cooper, noticeably growing in confidence in his fourth match back from knee surgery, was a stand-out to show he’s back near the form which took the Reds to last year’s title.
The Wallabies five-eighth regularly took on the advantage line, muscled up in defence and threw some signature spiral passes that put his teammates into space.
The goalkicking of Mike Harris, who slotted five from six, was also crucial for the Reds as they scored one try to the Highlanders’ two.
Queensland looked home and hosed when prop James Slipper was rewarded for a strong display with a 57th-minute try in the right corner for a 16-3 lead.
But the Highlanders fired back with tries to Adam Thomson and Chris King off the back of concerted pressure to close the gap to six points with six minutes left.
Missed conversions cost the visitors dearly, meaning they needed a converted try at the death to win instead of a mere penalty goal, which they could have taken.
The win came at a worrying cost for the Reds as lock Rob Simmons (knee), flanker Beau Robinson (foot) and winger Chris F’Sautia (hamstring) were all injured.
It was gut-wrenching to see teenage talent F’Sautia tear his hamstring as he made one of the few line breaks of the first half off a Cooper cut-out pass.
The Australian Under-20 three-quarter has battled hamstring issues for the past three years and Queensland had believed they had solved his problems.
The previous match between the two sides resulted in a 11-try special but that was in stark contrast to a stop-start first half dominated by Jonathan Kaplan’s whistle and Highlanders handling errors.
“We’ve got to get some clarity around the breakdown,” frustrated Reds coach Ewen McKenzie said as his side led 6-3 at halftime. “It’s pretty hard work there, they’re counter-rucking pretty hard.”
Relieved Reds captain Will Genia praised his team’s backs-to-the-wall effort in an energy-sapping end to the game.
“It’s all about character, especially at the breakdown contest and defence, and when you’re pushed to the limits on your tryline you just have to front up and we did,” Genia said.
Queensland now sit one point behind the Brumbies (54) on the Australian conference table and require the ACT-based team to lose their last two matches against NSW and the Blues to be a realistic chance of hosting a play-off.
Coach Ewen McKenzie defended their decisions to take penalty goals instead of tries for a bonus point.
“I can guarantee that if you say `we’ll go out there and score four tries’ it doesn’t happen,” McKenzie said.
“Everyone can be an expert sitting on the sideline (but) you have to get the four points first.”
Kaplan whistled 27 penalties for the match and, while 17 were against Queensland, the Highlanders ended the match incensed that no Reds were sin-binned for the 10 penalties they received while on hard attack.
“The amount of penalties in the red-zone hindered our game,” said coach Jamie Joseph.
“We certainly did enough to win that game and that’s what’s most frustrating.”
Joseph also revealed the South African whistle-blower entered their dressing room before the match to warn three Highlanders about their discipline at the ruck.
“That’s the first time that’s ever happened in my experience,” he said.© AAP 2013