Midfield blockade tactics part of Reds' comeback plan
Mike Harris finally gets an opportunity to confront the Sonny Bill Williams phenomenon head on as the Wallabies hopeful from North Harbour continues his auditioning process for an inside back berth in the June internationals by again marking up against New Zealand's finest.
Since returning from a hamstring injury against the Stormers on April 20, the 23-year-old five-eighth has confronted Ma'a Nonu and Daniel Carter in successive rounds – and now Williams looms as the Super Rugby-leading Chiefs take on the defending champions at Suncorp Stadium tomorrow.
Harris missed the regular season victory against the Crusaders in Brisbane last year and was still in rehab as the Queensland Reds turned the tables on Richie McCaw's men when it really counted in the title decider.
"It's pretty exciting for me. It's a challenge I'm looking forward to," said Harris, who will try to form a midfield blockade with centre Anthony Faingaa, another key Reds back who is back to full fitness.
Ewen McKenzie's backline successfully shut down the Crusaders' dynamic duo of Williams and Robbie Fruean in both matches last year. Fullback Ben Lucas, defending at No10 for Quade Cooper, set the tone on May 29 when he cut the All Blacks star down to size the first time he carried the ball. Ben Tapuai, now sidelined with a broken collarbone, and Faingaa also cramped the Crusaders' style that night, and again in the final.And now Harris hopes history repeats when he and Faingaa seek to replicate the defensive effort that helped keep the Crusaders try-less in Christchurch for the first time since 2000 last weekend.
It is no coincidence that the Reds' defensive system has been upgraded by the return of Faingaa, who started last weekend for the first time since round one, while goal-kicker Harris has always been regarded as a reliable tackler.
"Anthony and myself have a good combination. We pride ourselves on shutting down those types of players," said Harris, referring to the obstacles posed by Williams and centre partner Richard Kahui.
Williams automatically looms large over any opposition but Harris, who crossed the Tasman last year after being consistently overlooked by the Blues, and his team-mates said it would be folly to neglect the threats posed by Kahui, Aaron Cruden and wing Lelia Masaga.
"Cruden's their playmaker. He's the one that controls the game and pulls the strings," said Reds and Wallabies halfback Will Genia. "There was a big deal made about Sonny when we played the Crusaders last year but all you have to do is tackle low and make sure you do your best to stop the offload and I guess you nullify that threat."
If Harris, who is eligible for the Wallabies through an Australian-born grandmother, can follow those instructions his prospects of being involved in the season-opening test against Scotland on June 5 will be enhanced.
"I was hearing positive things last year so hopefully I can have three really good games [before Scotland]," he said.
Wallabies coach Robbie Deans will rely heavily on Reds and Western Force players for the one-off test because they have a bye before the Super 15 takes a break.
There is also only a four-day turnaround before the opening match of a three-test series against Wales, where the top team will be rolled out. Meanwhile, the Reds welcome back loosehead prop Ben Daley and openside flanker Beau Robinson is on the bench after the pair missed the trip to Christchurch with minor hamstring and leg injuries. Greg Holmes drops to the reserves while back-up prop Albert Anae and Wallabies No8 Radike Samo revert to club rugby.
Otherwise McKenzie has named a settled squad, a reason he is confident they can climb up the ladder from ninth.
"We've worked our way through a difficult period of injuries and are now seeing the benefit of cohesion in our selections and with combinations out on the field. You can sense a huge lift in the confidence and intensity of our play following the return of a number of players."