Dan McKellar won’t be the next Wallabies coach, but one factor in his first season at the helm of the finals-bound Brumbies is a positive indicator for future success at international level.
The Brumbies sit top of Super Rugby’s Australian Conference with only four regular-season rounds remaining, and with a favourable draw on the run home, they look likely to finish second or third on the overall table.
This season has been one of the most even in recent years, with only nine points separating third from 14th on the table.
Even though there’s only a three-point buffer between the Brumbies and third-placed Waratahs in the Australian Conference, the Canberra-based side take on the Bulls at home tonight, followed by the Sunwolves in Japan, the Tahs in Sydney and the Queensland Reds in Canberra.
That sequence is a lot sweeter than that facing the Melbourne Rebels and Waratahs, while the Reds are just about out of the finals race.
What sticks out about the Brumbies’ season is their record against foreign teams, which will hold them in good stead for a finals campaign.
Sure, they were hammered by the Hurricanes in Palmerston North, but that was back in Round 3.
They were beaten well by the Crusaders in Christchurch 36-14, but they competed well for long periods, with the defending champions scoring 17 of their points in the last 10 minutes.
Since that match against the Crusaders in mid-April, the Brumbies have faced five foreign teams in consecutive rounds – a run that has yielded four wins and a narrow 20-15 loss to the Jaguares in Buenos Aires.
They also dusted the Chiefs 54-17, albeit back in February.
Wins over the Lions, Stormers, Blues and Sunwolves have not only got them into top spot in Australia, but will give them confidence they can get the better of any team in the finals, whether they are from South Africa, New Zealand or Argentina.
They might however prefer not to take on the Melbourne Rebels, who have knocked them off twice already in 2019.
The other Australian teams have found it much tougher against foreign opposition. What it shows is that the Brumbies know how to break down different styles of play; to get into the grind when necessary but also to use a bit more ruck speed and width when warranted.
Intriguingly, they haven’t been as effective against their fellow Australian teams, despite being a lot more familiar with them.
They’ve copped a bit of flak for being too forward-orientated. Former Brumbies lock Justin Harrison slammed them as playing “pedestrian” rugby after three of their four tries against the Blues came from rolling mauls.
But it’s a strength, it’s working, it’s pragmatic. And it’s the type of no-frills rugby that can win finals games.
The astute general-play kicking from five-eighth Christian Lealiifano and fullback Tom Banks means they are a team in control, while Tevita Kuridrani and Henry Speight are back to form and provide much-needed spark with the ball.
The Rebels and Waratahs, meanwhile, have each managed just one win so far over teams outside of the Australian Conference.
The Rebels started the season promisingly – including a home victory over the Highlanders – and looked to be cruising. Will Genia and Quade Cooper were back together and the backline was finding space and the tryline.
Then the good form dried up and they’ve slumped.
Their failures against foreign teams has hurt, and given they probably need to account for both the Crusaders and Chiefs in the final two rounds, as well as a home win against the Waratahs, it’s not looking rosy for the Rebels.
The Waratahs claimed the big scalp of the Crusaders in Sydney, but they also faltered to the lowly Sunwolves in Newcastle.
As the Brumbies were flexing their muscle against foreign teams, the Tahs lost to a trio of South African teams: the Sharks, Bulls and Lions. Jed Holloway’s red card against the Sharks was a stinging blow.
However, it was telling that against the Bulls, what they lacked was exactly what was so effective for the Brumbies.
The Tahs’ forwards got schooled; their scrum was annihilated while their rolling maul got disrupted when they were in a good position to score from line-outs close to the Bulls’ tryline.
The Brumbies’ scrum has been solid while their rolling maul has been a weapon.
Remember, Brumbies hooker Folau Fainga’a is the top Super Rugby try-scorer this season with 10.
The run home for the Tahs – the Jaguares tomorrow night in Sydney, the Rebels away, the Brumbies at home and the Highlanders away translates to an arduous task to make the finals.
The Brumbies set a high standard when they thrashed the Chiefs early in the season that took away a decent amount of mystique around Australian teams being able to match it with Kiwi sides.
They’ve continued that high standard against other foreign teams this season, and for most of it without David Pocock. They are a side in control.
It’s a side you’d expect that Brad Thorn is trying to produce at the Reds; one that’s physically assertive, who aren’t afraid to simplify their game to keep the scoreboard ticking over, to fight hard for every metre made and every metre in defence. Gritty and assured.
The only way McKellar could get in the frame to succeed Michael Cheika as Wallabies coach is if Rugby Australia are set on an Australian coach, Stephen Larkham and Scott Johnson aren’t interested in the job and Eddie Jones stays on with England until the end of his contract in 2021.
But he’ll do his chances no harm for the future if he keeps the Brumbies humming along, especially if he continues to be shrewd enough and savvy enough to find ways of picking apart foreign teams.
Those smarts would translate nicely into an international gig.