On Sunday afternoon, in a very cold Canberra twilight, the Brumbies held on to see off the Cheetahs and book a trip to Pretoria.
It was a willing game that was more entertaining than the score-line suggests if you appreciate some thuggery.
The Cheetahs forwards are very good at holding up the ball runners and turning them backwards or forcing them into a maul; and it was that strength that meant the Brumbies came away with fewer points than they’d have liked after early possession and territory.
The best asset the Brumbies possess is urgency and physical commitment.
All year the embodiment of that physical, strong-willed urgent play has been Ben Mowen.
Again this weekend he stood tall and seemed to be more and more involved as the game aged.
His runs got stronger and he was present at the ruck, making life extremely hard.
By the end of the match a puffy-faced bloodied Mowen speaking with Rod Kafer was a symbol of the sheer bloody-minded determination in this squad.
His lieutenants on this cold night were Scott Fardy and Peter Kimlin.
Both of them should accept it as a compliment when I describe them as colossal nuisances. They were hard to bring down, hard to move in the ruck and rock solid in the defensive wall.
They are growing into the kind of strong grunts that a forward pack needs for extended Super Rugby success.
It was up to the Cheetahs to provide most of the creativity on this occasion, and their first attacking set move was a lineout that went into a maul. The sneaky point of difference was Willy Le Roux at the back of said maul.
He peeled off to the blind side and passed to Piet Van Zyl down the line. It didn’t amount to a break, but was certainly a great wrinkle the Brumbies might not have seen coming.
The second good attacking set piece opportunity they had was a lineout that went for a try.
Throw to the front of the line was passed to Riaan Smit, which is a long pass for a halfback.
He gave it to Le Roux at second receiver and the play developed outside him.
Instead of running through the centres like most set pieces, when fly-half is the playmaker, this was wider across the park. Johann Sadie burst through between the outside centre and wing and was found on a great late pass from Le Roux.
Both of those attacking set pieces were very well constructed in their own way.
Goal kicking by Riaan Smit let the Cheetahs down right from the beginning.
The penalty attempt on nine minutes, with the side already down by three, set the tone for the match because it meant the Cheetahs couldn’t hang and grind as well as the Brumbies.
Scoreboard pressure may be the only way to force this Brumbies side to change its tone.
Willy Le Roux was highly involved early on, aside from a kick out on the full, he was a real difference maker. At 23 he’s really starting to come into the prime of his career now.
Australia and New Zealand fans should be looking forward to another decade of wondering what will happen to their teams whenever this man gets the ball.
Scott Sio had a strong game and he continues to prove it’s possible to develop into a good young prop in Australia.
He has a solid scrum technique, most importantly not losing his alignment the moment his pack is moved off the mark. That saves a lot of penalty situations that a referee can feel forced to make.
Around the pack he’s getting better and better.
And that’s the way he sets himself apart from Greg Holmes and Dan Palmer, the other promising scrummagers in Australia – he keeps up with the play and stays involved between the set pieces, especially going for steals.
The key for the Brumbies is how they’re going to attack next week.
In this match one of the most interesting plays they ran was off a lineout to the front where Nic White wrapped around George Smith to open up the wide side of the field and give Matt Toomua a bit of extra space to play in.
This sort of play is worth going back to more often because getting Jesse Mogg, Tevita Kuridrani and Henry Speight one-on-one with a defender hasn’t happened often enough.
All three of those players have the strength and skills needed to turn those situations into points.
That wrap play means the defence has to wait and see what will happen in closer before Toomua gets the ball out wide and in position to feed the outside men without defenders in their space.
Mirroring the southern hemisphere shift towards the half-back carrying the heaviest tactical and creative weight of any player, White has probably been the most important Brumbies player as well.
He kicks almost as often as Mogg, usually more than Toomua. (He doesn’t just kick the ball, he punishes it with his foot.)
Against the Cheetahs he was also their best and most creative attacking threat.
He is good at freezing the first defender and giving it to the forward with the most space and while he doesn’t have the same pace as Genia, he’s learnt to run to the man marking the forward outside him and go himself if the defender won’t commit to him. Smart player.
Possession was evened up to 50-50 after the Brumbies had to defend admirably for a lot of the final minutes.
The strongest stat for the Brumbies was that 40% of the game was played between the Cheetahs 22 and halfway.
That means even if they didn’t score tries, the Brumbies were effective at playing the field position game and forced the opposition to play the majority of the game under the greater situational pressure.
I mentioned it during the live-scores while the game was on, but it’s worth coming back to here: is there a better front-row player in rugby right now than Adriaan Strauss?
He’s got more speed than you’d expect from a man his size, which means he can break the line on occasion and is an asset getting the ball on the fringes too, unlike most front-rowers that are just deluding themselves in that regard.
Strauss also has a similar ability to Andrew Hore for getting over the ball in defence and forcing more numbers into the breakdown, or even getting a turnover. In the scrum his head was the one that remained furthers forward in a pack getting pushed backward.
Add to that very strong tackling and good hands for a big man and what else could be required?
On the topic of the props out wide, Ben Alexander is a perfect example of one who’s out there often but isn’t an asset out there.
He was on the end of a long set of forward momentum from the Brumbies that probably should have resulted in a try.
Alexander was open outside Ben Mowen, who received the ball under great pressure but stayed about 12m wider so the pass didn’t land on his chest and he dropped it.
If Alexander was aware he would have moved in closer, taken the simpler pass and scored.
The lesson for the Brumbies to take away from this match is they have the mental fortitude required to stick to a game plan and succeed in finals footy.
It would have been easy to try and change tack when they couldn’t put the Cheetahs away, but strong mental resolve kept the team on the same page and 100% committed to the man either side.
That kind of trust is hard to build and is worth acknowledging.
Watch the Cheetahs set play on the 70min mark from the scrum.
That play ends with the Cheetahs in space and a good grubber put through. There are two orange jerseys in the vicinity but at least five blue and white ones come through to recover.
A great move snuffed out by a committed side.
The Cheetahs spent the last 12 minutes of the match throwing everything they had at the Brumbies and couldn’t break the line until the game would be decided by the faulty kicker in their side.
Possibly the ultimate error was not allowing that kicker the earlier, easier kick at goal with seven minutes remaining that meant the later try would have been enough to win without the conversion.
So many times the Cheetahs broke the line, Pretorius, Smit and Le Roux in particular were threatening every touch, but as long as the Brumbies made that first tackle to halt the phase there was the belief the defensive line would recover after that and repel the attack. Admirable stuff.
This is the way the Brumbies have decided to play and they’ve secured victories in a similar way all year.
The thought of holding their line for long periods isn’t one that scares them, it seems to bring them closer together and improve their resolve.
In the end the Brumbies held on by the width of the left upright denying Riaan Smit’s kick.