Preview: Reds v Sharks

Date published: July 22 2012

Having survived six elimination matches to scramble into the play-offs, the Reds now tackle the Sharks in the battle of Brisbane.

Having survived six straight elimination matches to scramble into the finals, the Reds' quest for back-to-back semi-finals continues when they take on the Sharks.

Super Rugby's Houdini act pulled off the upset of the Australian conference by slipping past the Brumbies with a bonus-point win against the Waratahs to make the finals after a horror start to their season.

After crashing to five losses in seven games that all but scuppered their title defence, the Reds finally got their groove on and will now vie for a seventh straight win in front of a sell-out crowd at their Suncorp Stadium fortress where they've only lost four of their 25 games.

Whilst Queensland arguably aren't at the same level as last season when they were crowned champions, they're certainly carrying bucket-loads of momentum which is a good thing to have at the business end of the season.

The Sharks aren't far off the pace either, having notched up six victories from the past seven games with that one shock loss to the bottom-placed Lions before the June break proving to be their only hiccup.

They also won their regular-season fixture over the Reds in Durban, coming back from 17 points down late in the first half to send the defending champions packing.

However, the Reds in their own backyard are an entirely different kettle of fish and the Sharks will also have their hosts' intimidating home record to deal with.

A nightmare travel schedule hasn't helped the visitors either, with coach John Plumtree admitting they expected to be heading to Canberra instead of Brisbane before the Reds bonus-point victory ensured a longer trip for the Sharks.

Indeed, they would surely have preferred facing the wobbly Brumbies rather than a Reds side on a six-game winning streak – especially after the South Africans won in Canberra 29-26 in Round Six.

But if you want to win this competition, you've got to be able to beat everyone and knocking over the defending champions at their fortress is a good place to start for the Sharks.

If they pull off a win, they will then have to travel back to the Republic for next Saturday's semi against the Stormers which will suit them just fine.

The Sharks don't lack experience in finals rugby either. They've been there done that, however it hasn't always been plain sailing.

The men from Durban have played in 10 play-offs (including three finals), but they've only won a total of three of these matches (all of them in semi-finals). Last year they were faced with a similar task, but came up short against the Crusaders in Christchurch.

The loss of Reds playmaker Quade Cooper has given the Sharks plenty to smile about though, but they have their own headaches after losing full-back Pat Lambie (injury) and inside centre Frans Steyn (ineligible).

Some may argue that this loss of the Springbok duo is more of a stumbling block than the non-availability of Cooper, but both sides have shown this season they can still produce the goods without them.

At the end of the of the day, it all boils down to who gets it right on the night.

Ones to watch:

For Reds: With suspended fly-half Quade Cooper out of the mix, all eyes will be on his replacement Ben Lucas and whether the Reds can survive without their Wallaby playmaker. Truth to be told, they've done alright without him as Super Cooper has only played in a handful of games this season. But whilst Cooper's absence is still a major blow, Lucas has proven his worth having starred in the Reds' win over the Chiefs in May. Reds fans will now hope he can rise to the occasion in a sudden death finals clash… no pressure then!

For Sharks: The explosive form of the Sharks' back-row has forced coach John Plumtree to make room for Bok loose forward Willem Alberts by moving him to lock. It's not a bad move as the presence of the colossal forward in whatever position he plays in will be a boost for the visitors. Also watch out for French wizzard Fred Michalak who will once again be relied upon to add his brand of mercurial magic to backline.

Head to head: There's mouth-watering match-ups all over the pitch, but the battle between Scott Higginbotham and Ryan Kankowski will be immense as both are mobile eights that are full of running with an eye for the tryline. In the backs, Digby Ioane and JP Pietersen are both oozing form at the moment and will provide plenty of fireworks out wide.

Recent results:
2012: Sharks won 27-22 in Durban
2010: Sharks won 30-28 in Durban
2009: Reds won 25-13 in Brisbane
2008: Sharks won 22-10 in Durban
2007: Sharks won 59-16 in Brisbane

Prediction: We're really looking forward to this one. Despite the Sharks' jet-lag, expect both sides to throw everything but the kitchen sink at one another for the full 80 minutes in what should be an evenly-matched contest. Home advantage favours the Reds, but if the Sharks can go the distance… we think they can pull it off. Sharks by four!

The teams:

Reds: 15 Luke Morahan, 14 Dom Shipperley, 13 Anthony Faingaa, 12 Mike Harris, 11 Digby Ioane, 10 Ben Lucas, 9 Will Genia (c), 8 Scott Higginbotham, 7 Liam Gill, 6 Jake Schatz, 5 Adam Wallace-Harrison, 4 Rob Simmons, 3 James Slipper, 2 Saia Faingaa, 1 Greg Holmes.
Replacements: 16 James Hanson, 17 Ben Daley, 18 Radike Samo, 19 Jarrad Butler, 20 Beau Robinson, 21 Nick Frisby, 22 Ben Tapuai.

Sharks: 15 Louis Ludik, 14 JP Pietersen, 13 Paul Jordaan, 12 Tim Whitehead, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Frederic Michalak, 9 Charl McLeod, 8 Ryan Kankowski, 7 Marcell Coetzee, 6 Keegan Daniel (c), 5 Anton Bresler, 4 Willem Alberts, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1 Tendai Mtawarira.
Replacements: 16 Craig Burden, 17 Wiehahn Herbst, 18 Steven Sykes, 19 Jacques Botes, 20 Cobus Reinach, 21 Meyer Bosman, 22 Odwa Ndungane.

Date: Saturday, July 21
Venue: Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane
Kick-off: 19.40 (09.40 GMT)
Weather forecast: Partly cloudy and windy – 40 km/h. High of 19 low of 12
Referee: Jonathan Kaplan (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Craig Joubert (South Africa), James Leckie (Australia)
TMO: Matt Goddard (Australia)

By Dave Morris