To win rugby games, some swear by playing error-free footy. Others by having a strong set piece. I have heard Rod Kafer talk of the importance of getting over the advantage line.
The Brumbies, in the midst of a historic winning streak, will play host to the Sharks in Canberra in what is shaping up to be a Super Rugby quarter-final battle of the big boppas.
With the Brumbies chasing their third Super Rugby title and the Sharks their very first, let’s take a look at how the sides match up.
How they got here
The home side have won their last six matches to wrap up top spot in the Australian Conference, a streak they haven’t achieved since George Gregan and Stephen Larkham bowed out in 2007.
Five tries on the trot were more than enough for the two-time champions to cruise past the Reds in their final round game last week, taking a 40-27 win and all the momentum in the world for their sixth finals appearance in seven years.
For the Sharks, their lead-up hasn’t been as dominant, just sneaking through into the finals at the very last moment.
Coming off back-to-back defeats leading into Round 18, the Sharks not only needed a win to give themselves an outside chance at the final eight but were also relying on the Bulls and Chiefs to snag victories of their own against the Rebels and Lions respectively.
The forward packs. Both sides have had a big year with their big men, relying more often than not on the power and unity of their maul, as well as impact up the middle of the park with the pick-and-go.
The fact that hooker Folau Fainga’a and Number 8 Daniel du Preez were the leading try-scorers for their side says enough about the impact each pack has had on the season.
Fainga’a even finished tied second for the entire competition in the meat pie department thanks to the Brumbies’ devastating rolling maul, a lineout set-piece that haunted opposition sides.
While the scrum wasn’t quite as explosive for either side compared to their open play dominance, the Brumbies and Sharks still finished the season with 95% (2nd) and 93% (6th) winning scrum percentages respectively. The battle of the tight five through the middle and execution off the rolling maul will be the difference-maker in this game.
For the Sharks, their defence has been a huge improvement from seasons past, with only the Crusaders having a better record in 2019 for points conceded. While preventing points is one thing, you still have to score them.
For the Sharks, it’s simply scoring tries. Scoring points.
Their defence has been outstanding, no doubt, but they’ve scored the third-fewest tries and second-fewest points of any team this season. The Brumbies are second and sixth in the same categories respectively.
The Canberrans have a similar weakness but in a different capacity. They’ve been able to score plenty of tries and do their damage through the forward pack, but their backline contribution in attack and ability to break the line out wide has been absent all season.
They’re dead last in the competition for clean breaks, offloads, carries and a consolatory second-last for clean breaks.
Springboarding off the last point, Brumbies coach Dan McKellar has made two key changes to his backline for the quarter-final to rectify this issue, bringing Toni Pulu and Wallaby Henry Speight onto the wings for more attacking flare out wide.
Pete Samu and Tom Cusack have also been brought into the run-on side at number 8 and flanker respectively in place of Lachlan McCaffrey and Jahrome Brown.
For the Sharks, fullback Aphelele Fassi has been ruled out with a shoulder injury, opening the door for a Curwin Bosch return at the back.
If the Brumbies were ever going to make a charge towards an unlikely third title, this looks to be the time. With eight wins from their last nine games, they’re the form team of the competition.
It’s hard to see the Sharks winning this one away from home after a turbulent final few rounds. They’ve struggled throughout the season to threaten the line, instead relying on relatively lower-scoring affairs and tight results to go their way.
It’s going to be a grinding contest up front, both sides working the advantage line up the middle and pushing for the rolling maul that has brought them so much success throughout the year to land points on the board.
Even with the added spice out wide, the Brumbies will find it hard to score anything long-range or free-flowing. The Sharks will need to lean on their strengths in the pack and defend until the cows come home. The home side should win the grind and book a semi-final ticket.
Brumbies by 8.