Only the Wallabies can lift silverware this year
David Pocock now captain of the Wallabies (AAP Image/Dave Hunt)
I have no doubt our New Zealand and South African brethren are already chuckling at today’s headline. But I think even they will concur with the sentiment before too long.
As Super Rugby breaks now for its first ever June International recess, I’ve reluctantly arrived at the conclusion that many of you may have reached months ago: an Australian team won’t lift the three-legged spaceship cup on August 4.
With the greatest respect (and more than a little pleasant surprise) for what the Brumbies have achieved in 2012, their relative inexperience is starting to coming home to roost. I don’t necessarily subscribe to the “must lose a final before you can win one” theory (the Reds proved you don’t just last year), but at various times in matches the Brumbies are still playing like they need to learn a few hard lessons.
They’re playing well enough to win games, however, and while ever they keep doing that, they will reach the playoffs. How far they go is another story though, and it’s this doubt that has me arriving at the conclusion I have. Fortunately, Jake White is possibly the best man to make the most of their finals experiences in subsequent campaigns.
Two things stood out for me from the Rebels-Brumbies game, as reasons why the Brumbies may have reached their zenith in 2012.
The first came roughly midway during the second half, where while holding a five-point lead and with the game’s momentum still ebbing and flowing, the Brumbies drove forward well into the Rebels’ 22, holding the ball for 19 phases.
The Brumbies controlled things superbly; they didn’t commit numbers to the breakdown, which allowed a constant stream of forward runners to continue the pick-and-drive. It was working really well, and they were making metres with almost every run.
However, just as they needed to commit more bodies to the 20th ruck, they coughed the ball up virtually in front of the Rebels’ posts.
This was a clear sign to me that these courageous young Brumbies aren’t quite up to the challenge in 2012. If they can’t keep 20th phase ball metres out from the Rebels’ line, then what hope will they have of holding it in a playoff against the Chiefs, or the very physical Stormers, or the canniest breakdowners of them all, the Crusaders?
The second thing was something that puzzles me about more teams than just the Brumbies, to be fair.
Can anyone explain why right-footed scrumhalves insist on the box kick for touch only metres in from the right-hand touchline? It’s not championship winning; it’s just dumb.
From that position down the short side, it’s about as low a percentage play as they come. The safer – and smarter – play would be to pass off to just about any other teammate capable of kicking a rugby ball.
Yet both Brumbies scrumhalves did it against the Rebels, and both of them had that stupid “how did that happen?” look on their face as the ball sailed into touch on the full. I can’t help but think it might have cost Nic White a Wallaby jumper in tonight’s game.
Now granted, these two plays on their own are small things, but small things like these are enough to tell me that far from Championship rugby, the Brumbies are still playing like the mid-table team most armchair and actual experts expected them to be this year.
That said, nothing would make me happier than for the Brumbies to prove me wrong.
The Reds’ defence of their 2011 crown is still firmly in their own hands, but I can’t shake a feeling of impending doom about their 2012 destiny.
They do have a decent run home when Super Rugby resumes. They take on the Rebels away, the Highlanders back in Brisbane, and the Waratahs in Brisbane to finish. If they’re good enough, they could emerge from those games with 15 points.
With their last bye now gone, they could finish the season with 59 points. In 2011, the ‘Tahs and Sharks claimed the last two wildcard spots equal on 57 points.
For the Reds to go back-to-back, I believe they have to avoid another trip to South Africa. The best hope they have of avoiding South Africa would be to as a low-ranking qualifier into the second week. This would likely pit them against the Chiefs in Hamilton, via beating the Brumbies in Canberra; something they’ve already done this year.
The danger for the Reds is that the Bulls, Sharks, and Stormers have and will take points off each other over the last three weeks. If the Reds keep winning and the South African teams drop intra-conference games (including upsets like the Lions produced on Sunday morning), the Reds will climb the ladder toward a playoff trip to the Republic.
The Reds are playing good rugby again, but I’m not sure it’s winning-sudden-death-games-in-South-Africa good.
This means hopes for Australian rugby silverware this year rides with the Wallabies.
The pessimists might say the best and only chance arrives tonight in Newcastle, where the Wallabies will be hoping to erase the ghosts of 2009 by regaining the Hopetoun Cup from the proud Scots.
The Australians have assembled a nice-looking side under the circumstances, and I’m quite excited by the Dennis-Pocock-Higginbotham backrow. Scotland will be desperate to atone from a horrible Six Nations campaign, and have made six personnel changes from that ill-fated loss to Italy in March. Lock Richie Gray is one to watch.
The Wallabies haven’t lost to Scotland at home since 1982, and I think they’ll be too strong again tonight.
While I do give Wales a good chance of winning one Test, and possibly this Saturday in Brisbane, Australia should prevail and hold onto the James Bevan Trophy.
By the end of this three-Test series, the young Australian and Welsh sides will have met five times, going back to the third place playoff at the 2011 Rugby World Cup.
This will be the first time to the two sides have met since Wales claimed a Grand Slam on the way to lifting the Six Nations crown, however, and likewise, it will be the first time the two countries have met while concurrently holding their respective hemisphere titles.
There are many similarities between the two sides in terms of aspirations and relative experience, and a healthy rivalry looks to be building.
Should the Wallabies emerge victorious from the June Tests, there will be good reason for confidence in defending their Tri-Nations (now the Rugby Championship) crown later in the year. But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves just yet.
Brett McKay is a former non-tackling scrumhalf and not-quite-1st Grade middle order stalwart. A rugby and cricket expert for The Roar since July 2009 (having joined in Sept 2008), Brett has written for Inside Rugby and Cricket Australia, and is also PLAY Canberra's rugby correspondent. He tweets from @BMcSport
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