The Queensland Reds have played finals matches three times since the start of the Super 12 and their record is not something they will be drawing any inspiration from, having lost them all. This has, however, been a season of record-breaking for the Reds, so why would the history-making stop now?
Let’s look back before we go forward. For Queensland, the early days of professional rugby appeared to be the beginning of a slide that was going to continue for more than a couple of years. It was gradual, though. Queensland entered the new world of professionalism as back-to-back champions of the amateur Super 10 competition. The inaugural year of Super 12 saw the Reds finish top of the table and earn the right to host the semi-final. All eerily similar really… The match was held at their home ground, Ballymore, against the Natal Sharks. The visitors won by 43 to 25.
In 1999 the Reds again finished top of the table. They lost just three regular games and finished above the Stormers, again earning the right to host the semi-final. The Reds hosted the Crusaders at Ballymore, and again the visiting team won (28 to 22). The only other finals action the Reds have seen was in 2001. After finishing fourth they played the Brumbies in Canberra, losing by 30 to 6.
After that it was a steady decline to become Super cellar dwellers, placing fifth, then eighth, and then a couple of 10ths, a 12th, a 13th and eventually claiming the wooden spoon in 2007. Needless to say, some positivity at finals time has been pretty hard to come by, but this year I have the feeling that something special is building at Ballymore and this record is looking like going the way of all the other hurdles the Reds have cleared this season.
There is of course one thing looking to stop the fairytale, and that’s the Bros from Auckland. The Blues have had a great season so far, with Pat Lam seeming to steady the team and achieve what had been the biggest problem: consistency. That was before the team suffered a couple of key injuries and the season looked to be getting away from them, but they have managed to keep afloat, making it through their qualifying final against the Waratahs without too much trouble.
Injury has played a part in the line-up Pat is able to put on the field again, with a bit of a “do you want the bad news or the good news” type of situation. The bad news is they have lost a key forward in Anthony Boric; the good news is Rene Ranger may be coming back into the XV. I say may, because he has been bracketed with Lachie Munro depending on his rib injury. One of them will be on the bench, one starting.
edit: Lachie Munro has been selected ahead of Rene Ranger, who sits of the bench. On the bench, James King is selected ahead of Mat Luamanu and Sherwin Stowers ahead of Winston Stanley.
The Reds have enjoyed the week off they earned by topping the table. It has given a few of their injured players a bit of extra time to ensure their fitness. Beau Robinson was able to get through a half of club footy on the weekend to give himself confidence coming back from his elbow injury. Ant Faingaa, to quote coach Ewen McKenzie, has been ‘poked and prodded all over’ to prove his fitness. Ewen was not wanting to start anyone less than 100 per cent fit. That means Digby Ioane has fully recovered from his head knock (or is that ‘footballers migraine’?) and the additional week can only have helped there.
Still, it is not a full squad Link has to select from, with Mike Harris revealing on this week’s podcast that he hasn’t healed as fast as he would have liked. James Slipper is another from the front-line team still in triage.
Key Match Up: Forwards. The Reds lose a bit with the solid and dynamic Slipper out. So do the Blues with their lineout general Anthony Boric not being fit. It is going to be important that the Reds’ pigs will be able to do the grunt work at the breakdown and both secure fast ball for their back and deny the Blues the same. They know they will have a job on their hands with Keven Mealamu in the opposite pack, and they are also facing Luke Braid who has been good enough to keep his big brother Daniel on the bench. This is finals footy and there are no more bonus points, so the pigs need to do the work.
Tip: The Reds should have this one. The week off had been the perfect tonic for nearly all that ailed them and they will be fresher for it. Losing Boric is a big hit for the Blues; couple that with the fact that Pat Lam can’t decide which of Munro or Ranger is the least injured, it’s clear they are a little the worse for wear having an extra game under their belts. The Blues will fight hard, but I see the Reds breaking their semi-final duck and securing their first final by securing a nine-point win.
Reds Team: 15. Jono Lance, 14. Rod Davies, 13. Anthony Faingaa, 12. Ben Tapuai, 11. Digby Ioane, 10. Quade Cooper, 9. Will Genia, 8. Radike Samo, 7. Beau Robinson, 6. Scott Higginbotham, 5. James Horwill, 4. Rob Simmons, 3. Greg Holmes, 2. Saia Fiangaa, 1. Ben Daley. Reserves: 16. James Hanson, 17. Guy Shepherdson, 18. Adam Wallace-Harrison, 19 Jake Shatz, 20. Liam Gill, 21. Ian Prior, 22. Will Chambers.
Blues Team: 15. Jared Payne, 14. Joe Rokocoko, 13. Benson Stanley, 12. Luke McAlister, 11. Lachie Munro/Rene Ranger, 10. Stephen Brett, 9. Alby Mathewson, 8. Peter Saili, 7. Luke Braid, 6. Jerome Kaino, 5. Ali Williams, 4. Chris Lowrey, 3. John Afoa, 2. Keven Mealamu (c), 1. Charlie Faumuina. Reserves: 16. Tom McCartney, 17. Tevita Mailau, 18. James King/Mat Luamanu, 19. Daniel Braid, 20. Chris Smylie, 21. Lachie Munro/Rene Ranger, 22. Winston Stanley/Sherwin Stowers.
Referee: Jonathan Kaplan
AR 1: Stuart Dickinson
AR 2: James Leckie
TMO: George Ayoub
Saturday 2 July, 2011 at Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane: kick-off 19h40 AEST (21h40 NZ/11h40 SA)