Reds tops in Brisbane barney

RYAN VREDE reports on a 17-16 victory for the Reds over the Crusaders in a compelling contest in Brisbane.

The scoreline fully reflects how close this match was throughout. It took a late Quade Cooper penalty to seal the victory against a Crusaders side who refused to die, despite being dominated in possession and territory. They were defeated today, but don’t bank against them returning here for the final to have another crack.

This victory must now erase any doubts that still lingered about the Reds’ capacity to end their Super Rugby title drought. They weren’t flawless, but circumvented their shortcomings with plenty of heart, desperation, desire and appreciable character. It’ll take something special to turn them over on their own patch.

As spectacles go, this resembled a Bledisloe Cup Test more so than it did a Super Rugby fixture between two of the tournament’s most potent attacking units. Certainly there were moments that left you breathless, but this victory was largely an ugly one. In a game of this magnitude they don’t have to be pretty.

The Reds deserved the points for their unrelenting spirit. There was little evidence of the synergy and fluidity on attack that has been a marked feature of their play throughout this campaign. A large part of the reason for this is rooted in the Crusaders’ punishing defence and rabid breakdown contest.

The hosts’ potency has relied heavily on their ability to dominate the contact point and then to recycle quickly. However, in the face of an assault from the seven-time champions, they never succeeded consistently in this regard, often conceding turnovers or spilling the ball under pressure.

The Reds’ halfback pair of Will Genia and Cooper’s influence was compromised as a result, and when you factor in their struggles at the set phases, as well as their wastefulness when they did get into good positions, you always got the sense it would take something scrappy or a defensive lapse to get them over the whitewash. Indeed both their tries would come in this fashion.

However, their superb defence ensured their attacking ills weren’t terminal. Coach Ewen McKenzie has forged his charges into one of the most formidable in this regard, and their physicality, accuracy and organisation rendered the Crusaders’ strike runners – most notably the 10-12 axis of Dan Carter and Sonny Bill Williams – virtual spectators for the bulk of the contest.

The Crusaders lead 10-7 at half-time, having scored in typical fashion from a turnover ball, but the Reds struck early in the second, Genia exploiting an unguarded blindside to sprint home. Cooper, in sinking the conversion, arrested a kicking nightmare that had seen him miss three penalties in the first half.

The pace of the game slowed in the final quarter due to the extreme exertion prior to that, and this suited the Crusaders, particularly Carter, who grew in prominence as a tactical kicker. He drove his team into Reds territory, where they pressured them into infringements. Carter duly banked two penalties late in the piece and you got the feeling that the Crusaders’ experience in closing out matches from similar situations would be decisive to the outcome.

But the Reds refused to succumb, building through phases from deep in their half until they were awarded the penalty dead in front of goal. Cooper didn’t fail when it mattered, sparking wild celebrations from the 48 000 strong crowd and their heroes on the field.

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