Cooper’s absence gives Sharks a gap

JON CARDINELLI writes the Reds will miss Quade Cooper’s attacking influence as well as his kicking game when they host the Sharks this Saturday.

Cooper has been suspended for one match following a dangerous tackle on Berrick Barnes, and not for the first time this season Ewen McKenzie will ask a utility player to fill the Reds’ flyhalf void.

A serious knee injury sustained at the 2011 World Cup sidelined Cooper for most of this year’s Super Rugby competition. As a result, the Reds haven’t been as much of a threat on attack, and haven’t been as effective at implementing their kicking game via that imposing Wallabies halfback pairing.

The Reds have looked a better side since Cooper’s return, and scored a bonus-point win over the Waratahs last Saturday to claim the Australian conference title. However, it is Cooper’s transgression and subsequent suspension that could prevent the Reds from advancing any further in this tournament, as they don’t have another player in the same class.

Former Wallabies centre Tim Horan said as much following Cooper’s dangerous tackle. Predictably, McKenzie has responded by pointing to the Reds’ earlier performances when Cooper was still on the sideline. McKenzie cited wins that were achieved without Cooper, and believes that the Reds will cope with the most recent setback and progress to the semi-finals.

McKenzie has also said that the Reds ‘owe the Sharks one’, referring to the Sharks’ win against the Reds in the league phase. It was in this match where the Reds’ flyhalf problem quickly became a nightmare, as further injuries to flyhalves resulted in Will Genia finishing the game at pivot.

Genia will miss having Cooper on his inside this Saturday. The Wallabies halfback pair was integral to the Reds’ success in the 2011 Super Rugby competition as well as the Wallabies’ Tri-Nations victory. Both are outstanding individual players, but that halfback combination is more than the sum of its parts.

Every opponent of the Reds has been on a ‘Get Genia’ campaign this season, and attempts to disrupt the Reds at source is no new tactic. The Sharks will surely aim to bully the Reds up front and deny Genia a platform from which to play, but they should also work to further negate his space.

The fact that Cooper is not on Genia’s outside means there should be more pressure on the scrumhalf to play the role of general, as well as provide the attacking impetus. It’s a lot of responsibility, and the Sharks would do well to use this pressure to their advantage.

The Sharks will be without three key players of their own, as Pat Lambie (ankle injury), Pieter-Steph du Toit (ankle injury) and Frans Steyn (ineligible) will not be available.

However, it is more significant that their heavy hitting Springboks should be back in the starting line-up. The inclusion of Willem Alberts and Bismarck du Plessis will aid the Sharks’ quest for gainline supremacy, as well as the aim to stifle Genia’s influence.

Steyn has made a massive impact since joining the Sharks, and the Durban-side will miss his physical influence as well as his prodigious boot. Coach John Plumtree has the option of moving Tim Whitehead to No 12 and bringing Paul Jordaan in at No 13, but a like-for-like replacement would be more prudent. Meyer Bosman is an imposing physical specimen and has the type of kicking game that is so often the difference in tight play-off matches.

It’s a big ask to travel across the world and win a play-off, and I’m not suggesting that the Sharks will have it easy in Brisbane. But there’s little doubt that the absence of Cooper will effect the Reds’ balance and increase the chances of a Sharks upset.

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