Reds’ title defence bogged down in finals-bound traffic
The Reds’ stuttering start to the season and inadequate try-scoring appears set to deny last year’s champions a chance to defend their Super Rugby title in the post-season finals series.
The Ewen McKenzie-coached Reds survived a huge scare against the Highlanders at Lang Park on Friday to notch their fifth straight win but head into the final round of the southern hemisphere provincial championship’s regular season with their destiny in other teams’ hands.
The Reds lie seventh on the ladder on 53 points, one point out of the top six that will contest the finals, and praying that at least one out of the four vulnerable teams above them slip up against the competition’s cellar-dwellers.
The Reds should have little trouble beating the hapless Waratahs in their last match at Lang Park, but will hope one of the Brumbies (58 points), Crusaders (56), Bulls (54) or Sharks (54) are upset in the final round.
None of the four appears likely to be.
The third-placed Brumbies need only a single point from their home game against the insipid Blues at Canberra Stadium to seal their playoffs berth as winners of the Australian conference.
A loss by less than eight points to the Blues would secure a bonus point and be enough for them to qualify and deny the Reds any hope of stealing top spot in the conference.
The Crusaders, in fourth spot, are also in the box seat as they head home to Christchurch to play the 14th-placed Western Force.
In hosting the Lions in Pretoria, the fifth-placed Bulls face a team fighting to avoid the wooden spoon with the Force and the Blues, while the sixth-placed Sharks have a marginally tougher assignment against the 10th-placed Cheetahs at home in Durban.
Even if one of the four hopefuls in the top six suffer a colossal upset to tumble out of qualifying, the Reds’ apple-cart could still be upset by a desperate Hurricanes side.
Lying eighth but equal with the Reds on 53 points, the Hurricanes would have a slight chance to slip into the playoffs with a win in Wellington against the table-topping Chiefs.
The Chiefs lost to the Crusaders 28-21 at home in Hamilton on Friday but have already wrapped up the New Zealand conference and will earn the privilege of a week’s rest in the first round of the finals as one of the top two teams at the end of the regular season.
Bonus points for scoring four or more tries could well prove crucial in the final round, but the Reds have been found wanting for firepower throughout their title defence, with playmaker Quade Cooper sidelined for much of the season among a raft of other injuries.
With Cooper back in the side and improving week by week, however, the time had come for McKenzie to throw caution to the wind against the Highlanders and attack the try-line.
But the Reds managed a solitary five-pointer to prop James Slipper and instead elected to build pressure through penalty kicks.
“You have to win the game first,” McKenzie told local reporters in defence of the grinding win. “What people don’t understand is the scoreboard creates a lot of pressure.
“We have to play well over 80 minutes and you get the reward over 80 minutes so that’s the challenge there.”
A bonus point against the Waratahs could allow the Reds, who have a superior win-loss ratio to the Bulls and the Sharks, to leapfrog the South African teams if they finish on level points.
McKenzie will at least take heart from the form of mercurial flyhalf Cooper, who played his best game of a frustrating season against the Highlanders, and the likely return of explosive winger Digby Ioane from pneumonia.
Both players will be key to the Reds’ hopes of a big win against the Waratahs, should McKenzie order the floodgates opened.