This column originally was going to be the one that lamented the decision-making of experienced Melbourne Rebels and NSW Waratahs players that frankly should know better, but it’s not.
That’s because the end of the Super Rugby season has provided a much better story that deserves much more airtime than the failings of others.
When I did those run home predictions for the last five rounds of the season, the Brumbies sat on 29 points and were one point clear of the Rebels.
They had the bye in that Round 14 weekend immediately in front of them, and then, as my media colleagues in Canberra and I were starting to discuss, “four very winnable games” to finish the season.
From 29 points they could get to a maximum of 49, and in my loose predictions I had them getting to 47; the reasoning being that while winning all four would be a solid achievement, maybe only two of them would be with the bonus point.
The Brumbies finished the 2019 season on 48 points. I should have had more faith!
And in a roundabout way, that lack of faith is illustrative of where this Brumbies side sits in the grand scheme of Australian rugby.
Coming into 2019 – and I’ll absolutely throw myself onto this bonfire – the Brumbies were expected to be there or thereabouts. But not much more than that.
It was a reasonable squad they’d assembled, with experience in all the right areas, some promising talent added around the edges, and James Slipper capable of resurrecting his career if he knuckled down up front.
Even with some strong pre-season trial form, though, I don’t mind admitting that I thought mid-table, maybe somewhere in the seventh to tenth range would be a reasonable expectation of the Brumbies.
Second or maybe third in the Australian conference felt about right, with the fairly large assumption in place that a couple of now-underwhelming sides should do pretty well with the playing groups they had.
The 54-17 Round 2 annihilation of the Chiefs early on certainly got everyone’s attention; this was the game that showed that what they were trying to do through 2018 was starting to bear fruit, and included some tries for the highlight reels.
But the next month or six weeks proved to be more difficult, with losses compounded by a seeming inability to get into games. Losses to the Hurricanes and Reds, as well as a second loss to the Rebels in there, too, really had people wondering about them.
And it’s strange how people think. The general perception that developed about the Brumbies during this time carried through significantly longer than it should have. In my workplace – a media organisation at that – it took until the week before last for people to stop asking, “but aren’t they struggling?”
They’d been leading the Australian conference for several weeks by then.
The Reds loss in Round 6 prompted a strong internal review that has worked out pretty well, and the first signs of improvement were there when the Brumbies pushed the Crusaders to lead 7-0 at halftime in Round 8 after the bye. But the questions about them were still there, and in the report card at the time, I noted that “consistency is a box they’re a good way off ticking yet”.
The box ticking started pretty soon after that, as it happens.
A five-tries-to-three thumping of the Lions in Canberra was followed by one of the great wins in Brumbies history, a defence-led 19-15 win over the Stormers in Cape Town, which itself was the first time the Stormers has lost to and Australian side at Newlands since the Waratahs got up in 2016.
A 20-15 loss to the Jaguares in Buenos Aires was a missed opportunity; a Jaguares penalty goal in the second half was the difference between the two sides, but the Brumbies conceded four turnovers in attacking territory in the last eleven minutes. It would be the last loss of the regular season, and brought plenty of momentum back to the ACT for the run home.
A solid win over the Blues drew some ridiculous and unwarranted criticism for the style of play, which was in turn followed by twin demolitions of the Sunwolves and Bulls, conceding one try to nine scored; all nine coming from backs, and suddenly the critics were quiet again as the Australian conference became the Brumbies’ to lose.
But the penny was dropping. People were beginning to realise that the Brumbies were a team worth watching. A thumping of the Waratahs was enough to secure the conference, and the 40-27 win over Queensland saw a 55 per cent lift in the Canberra Stadium crowd from the Bulls game.
From that first bye in Round 7, the Brumbies won eight from ten, including the last six on the trot, which in itself is the Brumbies’ longest winning streak since 2007. Their current run of seven straight wins at home is the best since the run of eleven wins across the 2014 and 2015 seasons.
The Brumbies return to the Super Rugby playoffs this season, but the depth of the perceptions formed at the end of last season and that went far deeper into this year than it should have means that this is will be a surprise to a lot of people.
And it shouldn’t be. Their 2019 qualification marks the Brumbies’ sixth finals campaign in the last seven seasons, with last year being the odd one out. Like this season, their last two finals campaigns were as the sole Australian qualifier.
Fortunately, the penny has now dropped. The Brumbies have shown throughout the year that they’re among the most adaptable teams in the competition, with an ability to switch game plans week to week, game to game, and even from one half to the next.
Australian rugby has been crying out for a team worth watching, and that team has been working away in the Nation’s Capital, right under everyone’s nose. But they’re ready to fly the flag through the finals.
“You get a bit sick of rugby getting beaten up in Australia for one reason or another. I’d love for us to keep working hard and put some really positive stories together for our own players and group to remember, but also for rugby to get some positivity over the next few weeks.” Brumbies coach Dan McKellar said on Saturday night post-match.
“I’m confident we can do that. The atmosphere walking into the ground on Pasifika day, there was a vibe. The players want to experience that. Hopefully we get double (the crowd at Canberra Stadium) next week.”
And there is now no bigger motivation for the team – and the Canberra Stadium crowd – to see out the 2019 season in style.
Inspirational captain Christian Lealiifano yesterday announced he’ll head to Japan at the end of the Australian season, and though his reasons were typically selfless – “I thought it was time to think about (my family) rather than myself” – he admitted that after coming close in 2013, a Super Rugby title is what he’d love to finish his time in a Brumbies jersey with.
“There’s exciting times ahead with the quarter-final at home this week and then hopefully continuing on in the competition. It would be really fitting to go out on a high note,” he said at yesterday’s announcement.
The Brumbies now have the chance. And just maybe, Australian rugby will get the good news story we’ve been crying out for all year.