Reds wimp out of 2012 Super Rugby finals
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Sharks player Jannie du Plessis (R) tackles Reds Will Genia during the Super Rugby qualifying final between the Queensland Reds and the Sharks (AFP / Patrick Hamilton)
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For the second weekend in a row, an Australian contender has wimped out of playing tough, efficient, hard-shouldered and winning finals rugby, as the Reds capitulated 17-30 to the Sharks at Suncorp Stadium.
Last week it was the Brumbies surrendering to the hapless Blues so completely that they could not even get the bonus point loss which would have given them a home qualifying final.
We consoled ourselves that the Reds were a more likely championship team. The result, we believed, actually favoured Australian rugby. This belief was supported by the terrific four-try bonus-point win over the Waratahs.
This impressive victory, we argued, showed that the Reds were the one Australian team with the players (even without Quade Cooper), the spirit, the tactics and the mongrel to go deep into the finals series.
In retrospect, we forgot that the Reds were playing the Waratahs.
What was disappointing about the Reds against the Sharks is that right from the beginning they were flying the surrender flag. The Sharks moved the ball around with some brilliant hand-to-hand passes, made massive hits, and generally smashed the Reds on defence and attack.
You would have thought that the Sharks were playing in front of their home ground, so intense and accurate were they, rather than at a ground where the Reds had won something like 21 of their last 23 matches.
And just as the Brumbies looked and played (which is more important) small in comparison with their Blues opponents, the Reds lacked any of the physical presence of backs like JP Pietersen and Lwazi Mvovo and forwards like the du Plessis brothers, Willem Alberts and Tendal Mtawarria.
The one exception to this general criticism was Scott Higginbotham, who played with terrific spirit, energy and impact. It was Higginbotham who won a lot of the crucial pressure lineouts for the Reds, then made telling runs and smashing tackles. Compare this with the effort (or lack of effort) of Rob Simmons. Here is a second-rower who looks like John Eales but plays like Jane.
Over the past four years there has been a lot of criticism of Robbie Deans as the national coach. But this qualifying finals and the capitulation of the Brumbies the week before have highlighted once again the lack of players, especially tight forwards, that the Australian Super Rugby franchises are producing.
And would Deans have made the foolish tactical mistake of playing the world’s best halfback, Will Genia, at flyhalf, when the starter Ben Lucas was badly injured after 20 minutes of play?
The Reds coach Ewen McKenzie justified this move in an after-match interview by saying that Genia had trained all season as the back-up flyhalf, and anyway, the alternative Mike Harris had received a bang to the head. But when was this bang? I ask this because Harris stayed on the field for about an hour’s play. With Lucas going off the field after 20 minutes of play, there was plenty of time for Harris to slot in one position.
As Greg Clarke pointed out in his commentary, Harris has started as flyhalf three times this season for the Reds. All three were victories. So why wasn’t he used, and Ben Tapuai, a Wallaby last season and a fine centre, brought into the midfield?
I wrote in my notebook as the Genia shift was being made, “This is ridiculous. The Reds can’t win this match now.”
As Rod Kafer, who was also perplexed about the move, pointed out, Genia’s main attacking threat to the Sharks was his sniping from the rucks and scrums. With his move to flyhalf, this running threat was removed. The Sharks could then concentrate on pressuring the Reds’ inside backs.
Admittedly, Genia finished off a fine try just before half-time and occasionally, his long passes were able to get Reds runners outside their Sharks defenders. But just after the start of the second half, the Sharks read the cut-out pass ploy, and Charl McLeod intercepted the telegraphed play and raced away for a try under the posts.
At 27-10, there was no way the Reds were going to get back into the match.
I would think that serious questions about McKenzie’s judgment of players and tactics must be raised about the misuse of Genia.
Does Genia fancy himself as a flyhalf and is the coach pandering to his conceit? Did McKenzie not anticipate that Lucas would get injured, even though he has a long history of leg injuries? Why did he have a five-two split between forwards and backs on his reserves when he knew or should have known about Lucas’ vulnerability? Why wasn’t Harris or Tapuai brought in to flyhalf and Genia kept in his kingpin position of halfback?
Again, I make the point that if Deans made a tactical mistake as stupid as this, how long would he remain the Wallaby coach? In my view, given the fact that McKenzie had the week to work out his options, the decision to move Genia away from halfway must rank as the coaching blunder of the season.
Before the finals, I was critical of SANZAR appointing two South African referees to officiate in finals involving two South African sides. This criticism stands.
Jaco Peyser I thought had an average game in the Crusaders-Bulls match. If you were looking at the match through Crusader eyes, there were several disappointing penalties against your team. Peyser’s decisions were alleviated by the fact that the Crusaders were far too tough and efficient in their tackles, skilful in the backs and dominant in the breakdowns for a close contest to emerge. Still, several decisions raised eyebrows.
Jonathan Kaplan in the Reds-Sharks match blew only two penalties in the first 28 minutes, a period when the Sharks were on fire.
In the second half, after giving away an intercept try concede a score of 27-10, the Reds camped virtually on the Sharks’ try line for 19 minutes. In that time the Reds could not get the try they needed to get back into the match. If you were a Reds supporter, or someone hoping for an Australian team to get into the final four, there was not much joy for you in Kaplan’s refereeing.
Here is a small sample of some of the comments during the seige from Rod Kafer (a Brumbies supporter) and Tim Horan, a former Reds great but a refreshingly unbiased commentator.
Kafer: “Kaplan missed three or four penalties under the Sharks posts…”
Horan: “Gee, Kaplan pulled up that ruck early on the Sharks try line…”
Horan: “That should be a yellow card against Freddie Michalak…”
After TMO Matt Goddard ruled out a clear try to Liam Gill after being told specifically by Kaplan to look only at the first, Digby Ioane, grounding, Horan exclaimed, “Incredible… Kaplan asked for the wrong grounding… Why didn’t he ask, ‘try or no try?’”
Horan: “Miles offside the Sharks. The referee has got to see that…”
With time up, the Sharks did lose a player to a yellow card. But by then the game was up for the Reds, as they ended their season with a whimper rather continuing it with a bang.
Images courtesy Steve Bell – White Devil Images
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Spiro Zavos, a founding writer on The Roar, was long time editorial writer on the Sydney Morning Herald, where he started a rugby column that has run for nearly 30 years. Spiro has written 12 books: fiction, biography, politics and histories of Australian, New Zealand, British and South African rugby. He is regarded as one of the foremost writers on rugby throughout the world.