Brumbies take the gas in one last weekend of Super Rugby drama
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Brumbies' Stephen Moore talks to his teammates. AAP Image/Lukas Coch
When TMO Mike Fraser awarded Hurricanes’ hooker Dane Coles an almost-season-saving try well after the bell in Friday night’s clash with the Chiefs, I had a bad feeling about the rest of the weekend’s results.
In a run to the finals where results had hardly been going according the script (come on, hands up, who honestly had the ‘Canes beating the Crusaders AND the Chiefs in the last three rounds?), this generous decision from Fraser was a guarantee that the final round of the regular season was also going to throw up some doozies.
Proof of the quality of the conference and final six formats should come with this number: Nine. Only nine points separated first and eighth in 2012. In 2011, nine points separated first and sixth, and twelve separated first and seventh. No wonder it’s felt like the closest run home ever.
Back on Mike Fraser, I still don’t know how he saw the ball grounded, but it’s all academic now. At that point, the Hurricanes had done what they had to do to stay alive, even if it came forty-odd phases (or however many it was) and five minutes after the siren had sounded. The ‘Canes had won, and my tips were heading south again.
Compare the Hurricanes’ desperation with the Brumbies’ fatal hesitation. The Brumbies have played that same play-it-in-their-half gameplan pretty much since Christian Lealiifano went down back in early May, but that gameplan relies on not shanking at least three clearing kicks from inside your own 22, and not putting at least two box kicks out on the full.
The risk against the free-running, nothing-more-to-lose Blues was that all that free ball around halfway would come back to bite hard. And doubly hard, when you miss upwards of fifteen tackles in the first 20 minutes.
What was worse was where the tackles were missed. A defensive line that had let in the third-lowest number of tries all season was suddenly leaking like a waterlogged tissue in midfield. A game the Brumbies had to win started terribly and never recovered.
Anyway, enough about the Brumbies. They took the gas when they could’ve capped off their season perfectly, and instead had to run the gauntlet of other results for the rest of the round. They had their destiny in their hands, and they dropped it like a stone. By early Sunday morning Canberra time, they had paid the ultimate price.
The Hurricanes, on the other hand – as did the Reds – won by just playing as they had all year. Both teams play a high-risk game, but both have reaped big rewards, too. The Hurricanes finished with the most tries scored, and the Reds rocketed to the top of the Australian conference courtesy of a three-week revision of their 2011 gameplan and a decent return to fitness for Quade Cooper.
While the Reds boast a reasonably attractive style, the same can’t necessarily be said of the ‘Canes. This is the side that lost to the Cheetahs in late-March, you’ll recall, after leading 32-11. The best way of describing the Hurricanes methods is simply to say I’m glad they’re not ‘my team’. My mob already provide enough ‘moments’, but even they’ve had nothing on how red-hot and ice-cold the Hurricanes have been this season.
Of course, the ‘Canes have also missed an unlikely shot at finals glory in the end, and like the Brumbies, they too will look back over their season and identify the ‘what if’ moments that might have served them better. No doubt, that Cheetahs game will come up. So will their loss to the Brumbies in Wellington, ironically.
Be that as it may, what we do know about the Brumbies and Hurricanes is that they won’t be underestimated in 2013.
The Reds have emerged as something of a dark horse for 2012, though, with a Qualifying Final at home now providing the perfect platform for a Semi Final berth. They’ve had an up-and-down season, but they’ve still been hard to beat in Brisbane.
The worry about the Crusaders – for opposing teams – is that they got their jolt back into action in mid-May, and they really seem to be hitting their straps the further they go into July. Two losses ‘they had to have’, against the Rebels in Melbourne, and against the Hurricanes a fortnight ago, have forged this team for success. They were brutal against the Force for the first fifty minutes, before holding back the whip to canter home. They will have good reason to be confident on Saturday night.
And so will the Reds, despite losing to the Sharks earlier in the year. Quade Cooper has given them a few sleepless nights after being rubbed out for a week for his lazy tackle on Berrick Barnes.
He’s probably lucky it wasn’t a month ago, though, judging by the caveat applied: “the SANZAR Rules allow consideration be given to the importance of games to be played during the Super Rugby finals series and as such, this has been taken into account as a mitigating circumstance.”
The Bulls and Sharks will have concerns themselves, as they make another trip across the Indian Ocean this week. Both started leisurely against lowly opposition, as seems to have been the case for the South African front-runners since the resumption. Even the Stormers did their best to let the Rebels back in.
Neither the Bulls or Sharks can afford slow starts against the Crusaders and Reds respectively, or they’ll be in a world of trouble against teams that have shown their preference in recent weeks to get out of the blocks quickly. The Sharks are up against it already with Patrick Lambie ruled out, and Frans Steyn ineligible.
I think both teams from the Republic are up against it this weekend, and expect both Qualifying Finals to go with the home sides. Mind you, as the Hurricanes showed, and the Brumbies found out, Super Rugby is still capable of springing more surprises.
Should my predictions run true – no guarantee, on recent form – this will have the first-placed Stormers sitting in wait for the arrival of the Crusaders, and the Reds fancying their chances in another showdown against the rested Chiefs.
And then, who knows once you get to the semi-final stage. Super Rugby’s already thrown up that many late-season curve balls that nothing would surprise me once we get to the last four. It’s just been that sort of season.
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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