Vintage Smith keeps Reds' finals hopes alive
GEORGE Smith celebrated his 150th Super Rugby game with a vintage try and Quade Cooper produced a kick-pass Easter treat for a winning Queensland Reds side.
That's right, a winning Reds outfit. After a tortured spiral of six losses the Reds lifted the spirits of diehard fans at Suncorp Stadium on Saturday.
There were nearly four times as many empty seats as those with loyal fans because the 11,336 turnout to watch the 47-34 victory over South Africa's lowly Southern Kings was the poorest at a Reds game in a decade.
In fairness, the game was played against a willing yet anonymous Kings side but it was still the smallest crowd since the Reds-Cheetahs game in 2007.
That 2007 affair was most notable for the ovation given soon-to-retire Wallaby great Ben Tune for an intercept try and there was a similar celebration of class for evergreen warrior Smith.
Flanker Smith started the game as if he was 26 and in his prime as a Wallaby such was his impact as a pilferer supreme.
He smuggled three balls back from the Kings in the opening 21 minutes to show that textbook style doesn't dim at 36.
They were wonderful moments to remind everyone of his enduring quality.
Unfortunately, only energetic fullback Karmichael Hunt really matched his zeal in a 14-10 first half that was ruined by 14 Reds turnovers from sloppy passes, knock-ons and misjudgements.
Reds coach Nick Stiles would have adorned the simple message "hold onto the ball" with a few expletives during his half-time talk because that was the blunt point he had to make.
The Reds did snap into some of their most constructive play immediately after half-time and with only 14 men because of centre Duncan Paia'aua being sinbinned for a dodgy tackle.
At the 42-minute mark, Smith was all precision when he scooted around the back of a lineout with a wise direct running line that made it easy to link with No.8 Scott Higginbotham. He backed up for the return pass and was not to be denied by two defenders when he reached out to dot down.
His 19th Super Rugby try had all the key little elements done well that have marked the Smith career.
Winger Eto Nabuli's second try just five minutes later came after flanker Hendrik Tui had freed himself for a pass after bouncing off hapless defender Yaw Penxe.
In the space of seven minutes, Cooper was central to three super-slick tries to settle the match.
The Reds' second win of 2017 was in the bank at 33-17 when flyhalf Cooper dabbed a neat shortside kick which Karmichael Hunt turned into his second try, double his output in his 25 previous appearances.
At the 56-minute mark, the best move of the match unfolded. Cooper motioned inside but inside slipped a ball outside to halfback James Tuttle who threw a long bullet pass to Hunt who sent winger Izaia Perese over for his first try in Super Rugby.
Seven teammates clambered onto the 19-year-old's back to celebrate the moment as a show of the strong team morale that has endured through a rough patch.
At the hour mark, Cooper produced another quality touch from a quick tap near his own tryline. He banged a 30m cross-field kick to Hunt who marked it as if back playing with the Gold Coast Suns in the AFL.
Hunt set up Perese outside for a 50m scoot to the line for a try double and 47-17.
What was a seven-try pounding and a bonus point win was tempered just a little when the Kings' pace and perseverance produced three tries in eight minutes.
Losing the bonus point won't have impressed the Reds but a win, any win, is the best tonic for losing.
Hunt had a superb game from fullback with his involvement and intensity in a match that lacked it at times.
Smith was still cleaning out and linking after the 70 minute mark. Excellent performance.
The Reds bench was ordinary again except for back-to-back trysaving tackles in a blink from replacement flyhalf Hamish Stewart.
The Reds defence was often too passive with line speed although a big Alex Mafi hit and others dotted the day.
A big Reds-Waratahs showdown awaits at Suncorp Stadium on April 29.