Sharper side will take Brisbane spoils

JON CARDINELLI analyses Saturday’s clash in the Queensland capital and writes that the winner may not be the side that makes the big plays, but rather the team that makes the fewest errors.

It may seem an obvious statement to make, but then the Reds and Sharks have been anything but consistent this season.

Both have scraped through to the play-offs despite some woeful performances where the inconsistencies have cost them the result. There have also be instances where these teams have mixed the accurate with the erratic, and have still managed to come out on top.

If this is to be accepted, then what insight can statistics provide? Indeed, both teams should be expected to play more conservatively in a knockout match than they have in recent rounds. Four-try bonus points are no longer a priority, and this could be reflected in either team’s approach.

But there is something to be gained by examining the stats of the Round 4 clash between these two teams. There is also value in the statistics when you look at how the referee for this match, Jonathan Kaplan, has officiated over the course of the 2012 season.

If we look at who is available for the coming match, and who was available for that Round 4 game in Durban, there are key differences but also many similarities. The Sharks will be without Pat Lambie this weekend, who played flyhalf in that previous game. The Reds are likely to play the same halfback pairing of Will Genia and Ben Lucas, as Quade Cooper is not available until a possible semi-final. The big omission for Queenslanders on this occasion will be that of lock James Horwill.

The Sharks won the Round 4 match 27-22 after trailing 17-10 at half-time. It was a game where the Sharks started badly, but found form as the match progressed. It was also a game where the Reds were hampered by a number of injuries throughout and were forced to finish with scrumhalf Genia in the flyhalf channel.

According to ruckingoodstats.com, both teams were guilty of many turnovers on that occasion, with the Reds (19) worse than the Sharks (14). The Reds made 10 handling errors on the day, and this obviously impacted on their ability to capitalise on a superior amount of possession (69% in the first half and 53% in the second). They may have also have edged the game but for some woeful goal-kicking where their kickers missed three attempts at posts.

Lambie was flawless in front of goal, converting all five attempts. But while the Sharks will miss Lambie’s influence in the side, it must be noted that he has since been shifted to fullback with Freddie Michalak coming in at No 10. And apart from lending the Sharks some impetus from that flyhalf position, Michalak has also maintained an impressive goal-kicking record (81%) over the course of the season.

If the Reds impede this Saturday, the Sharks will feel confident that Michalak can make the hosts pay on the scoreboard. Ruckingoodstats reveals that of the 15 teams that played Super Rugby this season, the Reds were ranked third for penalties conceded (they conceded 10.6 penalties per match on average). The Sharks are ranked seventh overall in this respect.

Breaking it down further, the Reds are the biggest culprits when in possession, conceding more penalties than any of the other 14 teams. And looking at the rucks and mauls, the Reds are ranked second for the most penalties conceded.

Scrums aren’t much better, with the Reds conceding the third most penalties. The Sharks will have noted this weakness, and as they boast one of the strongest and most disciplined scrums, they will surely look to target the Reds in this area.

At the other set piece, however, it is the Reds that are more threatening. They are ranked second in the competition for winning the lineout against the throw. Considering their weakness at the scrum, they should look to disrupt the Sharks at the lineout.

While the Reds have conceded a number of penalties while in possession, and a fair few at the breakdown, they are proficient in making breakdown steals (3.9 per match). They have some specialists in Liam Gill and Beau Robinson, as well as hooker Saia Faingaa, who excel in this respect.

It will also help that Kaplan is officiating this fixture, as the South African is one of the more lenient referees at the ruck and maul (Kaplan is ranked 15th out of 19 Super Rugby referees in terms of penalties awarded in these areas). This may allow the Reds to maintain possession a bit more than usual, and also have more of a crack at the breakdown turnover when they’re defending.

But where Kaplan is far less generous is at the scrum, and as the superior team in this area, the Sharks should benefit. Kaplan is ranked fifth when it comes to infringements awarded at this set piece.

He also tends to award more penalties than free kicks and there are only four refs in the competition who offer fewer scrum resets than Kaplan. In short, if the Reds impede or fail to set properly, Kaplan is unlikely to give them another crack. The Sharks have conceded the fewest scrum infringements in the tournament.

Suncorp Stadium is often described as the perfect ground on which to play running rugby, and it’s true that both sides have a penchant for a fast-paced approach. But the occasion may demand a tighter, less risky game plan, and the margin for error will be small.

The Reds may not have Cooper available for this play-off, but they do have a reliable goal-kicker in Mike Harris (who has a 77% success rate). It is for this reason the Sharks will also need to ensure they don’t impede within range of the goal posts.

Their big banker will be Michalak, who will be tasked with turning Reds infringements and errors into points.

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