Reds without Cooper for Shark hunt
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - The Queensland Reds' serial escapes from the brink of elimination have marked them as Super Rugby's Houdini act, and they face another test of their guile as they take on the Sharks without Quade Cooper in the first week of the finals.
The mercurial flyhalf was banned for a game for a rough tackle in the final round win over the New South Wales Waratahs, and his team decided against an appeal after weighing up the option for two days.
The Reds felt there was insufficient time to lodge an appeal though they felt that the suspension was not warranted, the club said in a statement on Thursday.
"We initially anticipated we would gain a better understanding of the decision by the Judicial Officer though obtaining the full SANZAR transcripts," Chief Executive Jim Carmichael said.
"However, they failed to reveal any further detail or clarification on why the judgement was made and the delay in receiving these documents has made it near impossible to mount an appeal."
The Reds have to quickly get used to life without their playmaker, having already missed Cooper for most of the season due to a serious knee injury.
While Cooper is often maligned for being flashy, high-risk and defensively frail, the Reds are undoubtedly a better side with the 24-year-old New Zealander playing, and survived six straight elimination matches to scramble into the finals.
The Reds will look to Ben Lucas to fill in at pivot for Saturday's match at Lang Park, where an expected crowd of 50,000 has been encouraged to provide a hostile reception for the Durban-based Sharks.
"We're disappointed with the outcome but at the same time I'm sure my team mates will get through this week," Cooper said hopefully after the verdict was handed down.
The Sharks won their regular-season fixture over the Reds at their Kings Park home, coming back from 17 points down late in the first half to send the Reds crashing to five losses in seven games that all but scuppered their title defence.
The visitors might be forgiven for another slow start at Lang Park, having endured a nightmare transit from Durban.
A delayed flight from Johannesburg led to a missed connection from Sydney and left the team bleary-eyed on their arrival in Brisbane this week.
They have also lost the service of talented young fullback Patrick Lambie to a recurrence of an ankle injury sustained during South Africa's June test series against England.
Centre Francois Steyn, ineligible for the playoffs because he signed with the Sharks after a transfer deadline, will also drop out of the backline, but the Sharks will bank on the power of their forwards to hold up the Reds' running backs.
Sharks coach John Plumtree has bolstered the starting front row with Springbok duo Tendai Mtawarira, who missed the Sharks' final round win over the Cheetahs with a stomach upset, and Bismarck du Plessis, who came off the bench in the same match.
The last time the teams met in the playoffs was in the 1996 semi-final, with the Sharks upsetting the hosts in Brisbane 43-25.
The Reds' status as the sole Australian representative in the Super Rugby finals has underlined the lack of depth in rugby Down Under, but the Sharks have two local rivals still in contention.
The Cape Town-based Stormers enjoy a week off for finishing top of the table, while the Pretoria-based Bulls face a harrowing assignment against the seven-time champion Crusaders in Christchurch.
The Bulls have had the measure of the Crusaders in their past three playoff encounters at home, but have never won in the postseason away from South Africa.
The match could get heated after Bulls players accused the Crusaders of eye-gouging during their 32-30 victory at Loftus Versfeld in April.
A review panel cleared the Crusaders of the charges, citing a lack of evidence, prompting the New Zealand team's coach Todd Blackadder to demand an apology.
The three-times champion Bulls have gamely talked up their chances against a Crusaders side lacking back-row enforcer Kieran Read, but the long flight over the Indian Ocean and the poor record of South African sides in Christchurch counts against them.
"It's a huge task playing against a good side playing at home. Obviously the plan must be in place, execution for 80 minutes, that's what we are after," Bulls coach Frans Ludeke told reporters in Christchurch this week.
The best-placed winner from Saturday's two elimination finals travels to Hamilton next week to take on New Zealand's Waikato Chiefs, who like the Stormers, enjoy the weekend off for finishing in the top two at the end of the regular season.
The lowest-placed winner face the Stormers at Newlands in Cape Town.
(Editing by Alastair Himmer)
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