The Reds had looked a little scratchy since winning the Templeton Cup from the Waratahs and it was beginning to look like nine straight games was a little too much. But they proved they rise for the big occasions and shocked the Aucklanders by coming out of the gate hard — so hard they were up 24–0 by the 34th minute.
The first of three unanswered tries was a Quade Cooper special that nearly wasn’t. After working the attack from side to side, Cooper passed the inside ball to Ben Lucas. Lucas was brought down short of the line and it looked as if he had blown it, as Rob Simmons and Ant Faingaa were open outside. But a quick recycle saw Beau Robinson clearing the ball from the base of the ruck and quick hands from Ant Faingaa had Quade over in the corner untouched.
The next try came when a Stephen Brett clearance was taken by Digby Ioane who pinned the ears back and ran through a heap of Blues chasers before being taken down ten metres on the Blues’ side of halfway. More quick ruck ball saw in-form back rower Scott Higginbotham charging toward the try line, beating three players before popping a pass to Saia Faingaa who bumped off replacement back Lachie Munro as he fell over the line.
It wasn’t long after that Higginbotham got a try of his own. After seven phases the Reds were camped on the Blues’ try line; Robinson held back a pass and drew his man perfectly before offloading to Higgers, who dotted the ball down easily.
The Reds’ game up to this point was built on massive possession and advantage line stats. They used quick ruck ball and a constantly changing point of attack to play a Blues-style dominant game.
Whatever was said in the Blues huddle under the sticks as Cooper kicked his third conversion worked. The Blues struck back with two quick tries, the first of which came from a move off a line-out ten metres from the Reds’ line. A throw to the front was followed by a series of pick and drives to edge within inches of the line. After five phases the ball was sent wide and one quick phase later Chris Lowrey barged over the line for a five-pointer.
Two minutes later, Rene Ranger swooped on a loose Reds ball and the counter was on. The ball was quickly put through the hands and was soon on the opposite wing in Joe Rokocoko’s hands. He expertly drew his man and gave a deft pass to Lachie Munro with an open path to the line. The Reds were in such disarray during this quick counter-attack that Munro had time to trip, combat roll, get back to his feet and stumble over the line without any Reds defenders coming near him.
The Reds went to the sheds with a 13-point lead, knowing that they had a game on their hands.
Five minutes into the second half the Blues were at it again. Brett made a great break just inside the Reds half when he spotted a gap between two forwards. He drew Quade Cooper who was defending a fullback and offloaded the ball to Alby Matthewson, who ran it in under the posts.
The Blues maintained the pressure for a while but the Reds took their defence up a level. Soon they had the Blues pinned down at their own 22, and — in what proved to be a turning point — replacement hooker James Hanson charged down a Brett clearing kick, followed the bouncing ball over the line and dived on it. Cooper converted to take the Reds out to a 10- point lead. He kicked another penalty goal in the 69th minute to restore the half-time 13-point buffer.
It looked as if that might be the final margin, as neither team was able to assert any dominance during the last 10 minutes. When the full-time hooter sounded the Reds were ready to celebrate, but the Blues were in possession and had clearly done their maths. They knew one more try would earn them one bonus point, and the conversion another. So they had a crack and worked the ball into the Reds’ red zone. The forwards kept chipping away but despite several advantages for Reds offside, they were not able to drive the ball over. Then they spun it wide, where Ranger was able to score just a couple of metres from the sideline. It was down to Luke McAlister to make the pressure kick. Cool as a cucumber, he put it over and the Blues took two points from the match.
The Reds are gladly on a week off now. With Ewen McKenzie happy to take eight wins from the block of nine matches, he is no doubt allowing the boys to prepare mentally for the run home. In the post-match press conference he spoke about how he feels about his team, seeing them on top after being down for so long. Link described a battle for credibility, with outsiders constantly putting up new barriers for the team to prove themselves: you’ve never won in Canberra, you can’t beat the Waratahs, you haven’t beaten a Kiwi team. He figures it might take nothing less than the title for Reds to prove they really belong at the top.
With the Blues’ scalp now hanging from their belts, it is clear the Reds are doing all they can to show they’re the best. Use the comments below to tell us what they need to do to prove it once and for all.
Reds 37 (Try: Quade Cooper, Saia Faingaa, Scott Higginbotham, James Hanson. Con: Quade Cooper (4) Pen: Quade Cooper (3)) def Blues 31 (Try: Chris Lowrey, Lachie Munro, Alby Mathewson, Rene Ranger. Con: Luke McAlister (4) Pen: Luke McAlister (1))