The Reds and the Brumbies both needed to win their matches this weekend. The Reds needed to stay in reach of a wildcard spot in the play-offs and the Brumbies wanted to maintain their top spot in the Aussie conference — and neither team had easy games.
The Reds had the Highlanders, thankfully at Suncorp, and the Brumbies were in Sydney to the Waratahs, where they had not won since 2002. With so much at stake, these were bound to be tough, physical, hard-fought matches – and they were. To their great credit, our top two teams weathered their respective storms and have maintained their positions.
As I have said, the Reds were at home, where they have a great record for the last two seasons, but the Highlanders go out each week to prove their mettle and, against them, any team has to earn anything they want. And so it was for the Reds. My first thoughts were that the Reds were below par – scrappy and inaccurate. Indeed, there were 21 turnovers in the first half – pretty much halved, 11 and 10, between the two teams.
Ewen McKenzie commented at the break that ‘we’ve got to get some clarity around the breakdown, and his team immediately set about that on the restart. Better body positions going into the tackle contest, with more powerful leg-drive past the ball, began to give front-foot ball for Genia and Cooper, and that will always signal danger for any defence.
Before long it was 16-3 to the Reds and all was looking good, but a succession of penalties – I think four in two minutes – gave a try to Adam Thompson. At 19-8 and with six minutes left on the clock, the Reds again gave away successive penalties and another try. Their scrum continued to suffer the same pressure throughout the match – strange because the Highlanders’ scrum has not been a dominant force all season – but the great Reds defence held on.
A big plus for the Reds was the performance of Quade Cooper. Not really a surprise, but this time he made a major contribution in defence, even holding up one attack over the try-line! He defended in the five-eighth slot for most of the game and at all set plays. This is sensible and appropriate for Quade’s continued development — yes, he will continue to get even better.
AWH and Shipperley were both very good again. AWH finished the game as the number 1 lock, after Simmons’s departure. Saia Fainga’a is having his best season – I have favoured James Hanson above him in the past, but Saia has lifted his game, especially at the scrum. And, dare I say it, I thought that Scott Higginbotham played OK. He was much closer to the action, contributing to the hard yards in both directions. I’ll keep watching!
On the minus side, the Reds’ scrum was under pressure from start to finish. This must be fixed. The final outcome, however, saw the Reds winning the match the hard way. Sometimes this is the way the cards fall and you just have to tough it out — and they did. There will be more opportunities to win games with style, but great teams can win games in lots of different ways. The important thing is that they were up to it.