Reds must win the piggy duel
MUCH has been said and written about Saturday's preliminary final. And most has been about Quade Cooper's suspension.
And sorry, it'll be mentioned here too because it is without a doubt a pivotal element of this game. But there are other elements.
The primary bonus for the Reds is securing the home semi. They do not have to travel across to the Republic, or encounter the Sharks' supporters. They've been all snug and cosy in their homes, training in the same venues and slipping confidently into their weekly rhythm of recovery and preparation.
And the other benefit is that nagging bruises and minor injuries can get that extra day or so recuperation, as opposed to limitations placed on a travelling team.
Trust me, it all adds up.
It can be done though. I was part of the Reds team that beat the Sharks in Durban for the Super 10 title in 94. From memory, we beat North Harbour (NZ) at home at Ballymore on the Sunday, travelled on the Monday and reached Durban, via a stop-over in Singapore, on the Wednesday. We then played and won the final on the Saturday.
However, that was then and this is now.
Let's not forget he Sharks are also missing a few of their stars for this must-win prelim. Francois Steyn, star playmaker Patrick Lambie, and Lock Pieter-Steph du Toit did not board the jet from Durban.
Another benefit for the Reds is that they have history playing without Cooper.
They were without him for most of this year's Super Rugby competition while he recovered from knee surgery required after last year's Rugby World Cup.
Fair enough, they are not the same team without him. But it's not as though not having him there will be a massively new experience for the club. And Ben Lucas, a very good player in his won right, will slot right in comfortably.
So what of the rugby that will be produced by the Reds and Sharks? Well, rugby is rugby, and what got the Reds to the finals may not necessarily get them through to the final. Bonus points for four tries are irrelevant - winning any way possible is the objective.
This is no more evident than in Reds coach Ewen McKenzie's admission that while scoring tries will be persued as a method to win the game, yet, '... building the scoreboard will be the main task'. And in a rugby context we all know what that means.
To move this point on just a bit, the forward pack is where the game will be won. Although I've said on many occasions that the Reds' big names, Genia, Ioane, and Cooper (when available), for example, are vital for the Reds' chances in the finals, against South African sides you need at least parity in the forward battle. Even more so in finals.
Without generalising too much, against most Aussie and Kiwi sides, having a slight 'loss' in the piggy duel can be offset by the individual and collective brilliance of your backs.
But seldom is this the case with teams from the Republic. And it will be the case tomorrow night.
Should the Reds get bashed in the forwards, even having two Will Genias and two Quade Coopers wouldn't be enough.