Has there been a seismic shift in Australian rugby? With only one round of the regular Super Rugby season remaining, it is no longer the traditional power bases that sit atop that conference.
The Brumbies and Rebels occupy first and second places, with the teams from New South Wales and Queensland languishing behind them. Between them, the top two have won 16 games, the Waratahs and Reds only 12.
When a reduction in the number of Australian Super Rugby teams from five to four was made two years ago, the franchises under most threat were those outside ‘the big two’. The most prominent proposals were the elimination of either the Western Force or the Melbourne Rebels, or a merger between the Rebels and Brumbies.
NSW and Queensland were untouchable, but both have failed to profit from the extra talent pool made available by the Force’s demise. They are either treading water or going backwards.
Meanwhile, the Rebels have probably the deepest talent base and the best young coach in the conference, while the Brumbies have proven yet again that outliers lack nothing in motivation – they have the extra edge and desire that turns good players into winners. And they have done it all without the services of their best player for most of the season.
That desire shows up in the unglamorous aspects of play – in the quality of their work at the breakdown, in the relentlessness of their set-piece, and above all, in the tenacity and integrity of their defence.
These are criteria which should be central to Michael Cheika’s Wallabies selections for the World Cup squad in a few months’ time.
That, in turn, means that it is the Brumbies, rather than the Waratah side which Cheika coached to Super Rugby glory back in 2014, who should form the basis of the side. Five years is a long time in rugby, and the game between the Brumbies and the Tahs at Bankwest Stadium in Paramatta demonstrated it is ancient history in World Cup selection terms.
Up front, all of James Slipper, Scott Sio, Allan Alaalatoa, Folau Fainga’a and Rory Arnold should be automatic selections in the tight five. Behind them, Lachie McCaffrey and Pete Samu have also put their hands up, while David Pocock will be one of the first names on the teamsheet if he can prove his fitness.
In the backs, Tevita Kuridrani, Tom Banks, Henry Speight should make the squad too.
It is much harder to argue the case for the Waratahs. In the New South Wales tight five, only Rob Simmons has played consistently to the level required, while Michael Hooper has not enjoyed the support he needs in the back row.
While Bernard Foley, Nick Phipps, Karmichael Hunt and Kurtley Beale will all be names discussed in Wallaby backline selection meetings, none have proved beyond reasonable doubt they are the best players in their positions in Australia.
If a neutral coach like Warren Gatland or Joe Schmidt were to pick his best Wallaby side to play the All Blacks next weekend, I suspect there would be as many as eight Brumbies and only one Waratah in it, or maybe two at most.
In the weekend game at Paramatta, the wide attacking game preferred by the Waratahs ran comprehensively aground on the Brumbies defence, superbly marshalled by number 13 Tevita Kuridrani.
This particular patient has been ailing ever since the controversial departure of Israel Folau. The injury-enforced absence of Karmichael Hunt has finally put an end to his misery! The New South Welshmen have struggled to average more than 20 points per game in 2019, and that is peanuts in Super Rugby terms.
The Waratahs moved the ball across midfield into the far 15-metre zone on fifteen occasions during the match. They achieved two clean breaks but gave up four turnovers in return, and the other nine movements were neutralised with no advantage to the attack. Those are not game-winning numbers for a team with the Waratahs’ lightweight back five forwards.
Kuridrani and his cohorts set out their stall right from the very beginning of the game by successfully nullifying two turnovers attacks where the Waratahs enjoyed an overlap at the start of the play:
When Kurtley Beale first receives the ball, there is a potential four-on-three overlap out to the Waratahs’ right. The two widest Brumbies defenders (Andy Muirhead and Toni Pulu) correctly ignore Michael Hooper’s short-ball decoy and shift across to blot out Adam Ashley-Cooper and Alex Newsome.
The second example was a much more decisive victory for the wide drifting defence:
The Tahs have just won a turnover at the breakdown and there is a potential five-on-two out to the Brumbies’ left when Sekope Kepu goes to pass the ball:
The two ACT defenders (Kuridrani and left winger Toni Pulu) are committed to using an extreme form of drift defence by jockeying the attacking players towards the sideline.
This means they have to give up metres in order to buy time for other defenders to join the line, and they have to be able to predict the point at which they can make their tackles further downfield.
It is a hard operation to manage, but Kuridrani manages it perfectly. He backs off and slides across the field, starting opposite Hooper (1) and knocking down the New South Wales openside en route to a finishing tackle on Ashley-Cooper (4). By the end, Pulu is in excellent position to take Newsome on the touchline:
From more structured defensive situations, the Brumbies like to rush hard upfield and pressure the passer, and this has been their preference ever since Jake White was head coach. He was the man who first introduced rush defence to international rugby.
Tevita Kuridrani is again the main man in the scenario:
The ball is pulled back from a forward (Sekope Kepu) to a backline distributor (Bernard Foley) in the characteristic Waratahs’ attacking shape, but Kuridrani has all the bases covered when the ball leaves Foley’s hands:
Note how different in attitude the rush is – nobody is moving laterally and each defender is on the outside shoulder of the attacker opposite him, with Irae Simone on Rob Simmons in the black hat and Kuridrani perfectly positioned to hit Alex Newsome if he receives the ball out the back.
The excellence of Kuridrani’s positioning was a recurrent theme:
Foley would like to make the second pass to Newsome on this kick return, but that is not a real option with Kuridrani so far upfield and ready to lower the boom. Everyone in the Brumbies chase is spaced and aligned precisely inside him, and there are no holes to exploit.
The dominance of the Brumbies wide defence allowed them to shift effortlessly from rush to drift during a play:
Right winger Andy Muirhead starts by cutting off the wide play and forcing a long, looping pass from Foley. When the pass finally reaches the outside attacker (Hooper), Muirhead is already back in play to make the tackle! That is the work-rate expected of the modern professional.
Wide attacking play carries with it an inbuilt risk of turnover, with backs typically required to clean out at the tackle and little natural cover defence if the ball is turned over. The Brumbies are well-equipped to take advantage of these opportunities:
Muirhead takes Beale, and the Brumbies win the battle of numbers at the breakdown over the top of him:
How Beale managed to avoid conceding a penalty for holding onto the ball in this situation remains a mystery. The Waratahs were not always so lucky:
Simone folds in over the prone Ashley-Cooper, and Joe Powell does an expert job of staying in the fight and blocking out the first cleanout player. Turnover.
Even when the Sky Blues did manage to puncture the first line of defence out wide, they were frustrated by the evident grit and desire of the Brumbies scramble defence. Here is Powell again, running from the back of the previous ruck to haul down Lalakai Foketi near the corner flag and force him into touch:
With so many key players leaving the Reds and the Waratahs in the off-season, the relative success of the Brumbies and Rebels may represent a more permanent shift away from the traditional power bases in Sydney and Brisbane, and towards Canberra and Melbourne.
Moreover, the Brumbies’ success, and to a slightly lesser degree that of the Rebels, heralds the question Michael Cheika would probably least like to answer ahead of the World Cup in Japan.
Can he move away from the core Waratahs group and select a playing base from Canberra rather than Sydney?
A neutral coach entrusted with Wallabies selection would probably pick more than two-thirds of his 23-man match-day squad from the Brumbies and the Rebels, with the Brumbies having the lion’s share.
Success in Japan may depend on Cheika’s ability to change the paradigm of his thinking before the World Cup starts – and the power of the selectors newly installed alongside him, Scott Johnson and Michael O’Connor, to make it happen.
It will be a real trial of open minds – the test Australia has passed, with flying colours, so often in its illustrious sporting history.