Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - If press reports from Brisbane are to be believed, Freddie Michalak’s flair at flyhalf for the Sharks and the absence from the Reds line-up of suspended opposite number Quade Cooper could be decisive in settling the Super Rugby finals series qualifier at Suncorp Stadium on Saturday (11:40 SA time).
“It’s not quite no Quade, no hope,” lamented Chris Garry in the local Courier-Mail newspaper on Wednesday, “but the numbers show that the Reds, with Ben Lucas stepping into (Cooper’s) big shoes, face a tough task to win without their grounded star.
“Bookies (in Australia) still favour Queensland, who have won 21 of their past 23 games at Suncorp Stadium, to beat the Sharks.
“But statistics sourced by the Courier-Mail reveal that during the past two seasons, the Reds have scored an extra six points per game when Cooper has played: their winning rate drops to just over 50 percent when he is out - the electrifying flyhalf has missed 11 games since the start of the Reds’ triumphant 2011 campaign and of those, Queensland have lost five.”
The newspaper nevertheless quoted one bookie as saying: “The Sharks are without Francois Steyn and Pat Lambie and that evens it up - in fact I think the Sharks are far worse off without those players.”
Veteran Frenchman Michalak’s perceived liking for Brisbane is keeping the Courier-Mail from banging a pro-Reds drum too confidently, however.
“(Michalak) looms as the dangerman for the Cooper-less Reds. The enigmatic player, usually the Sharks’ second-choice No 10, is certain to be flyhalf for them and has an affinity for Brisbane.
“Nine years ago he thrilled a crowd of 40 000 at Suncorp Stadium during the pool stages of the (2003) World Cup with a 26-point effort in a French win against Fiji.
“He finished that World Cup as the second-highest points scorer with 101 points, behind Jonny Wilkinson (113).”
Scribe Garry suggested Michalak may be further motivated by the knowledge that should the Sharks play second fiddle in the knockout fixture, it would represent his last game for the franchise - the 29-year-old is intending to further his career back on French soil.
The Sharks are considered by most South African critics to have a far better chance of knocking over the Reds than compatriots the Bulls do of upsetting the Crusaders in the earlier (09:35 SA time) knockout game in Christchurch.
Whereas the Bulls have not won in that New Zealand city since 1996, the Sharks have much more recent memories of prevailing in Aussie metropolis Brisbane: they thumped the Reds 59-16 in 2007, although the last encounter between the two in that city (2009) was claimed by the home side 25-13.*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing