Against the Sharks at Canberra a week or so ago the Brumbies were in such awesome form that predictions were rife that they could win the 2019 Super Rugby tournament.
On Saturday morning, they were booted out with a 39-7 thrashing at the hands of a Pumas-studded, rampant and fired-up Jaguares side.
As I watched the game, I noted that right from its beginning the Brumbies were totally off their game: ‘The Brumbies have started badly and seem to be continuing to make mistakes. Ominous…’
The hooker Folau Fainga’a made a crooked throw on his first lineout and got away with it because the throw was bizarrely ruled straight.
Fainga’a, however, continued to throw so badly that the Brumbies, a team with one of the best lineouts in the competition, lost five on their own throw in the space of 25 minutes.
Not only were their skills off, their famed ability as a club to play smart rugby under pressure also seemed to have disappeared.
They continued, for example, to play five-man lineouts, even though this allowed the Jaguares to easily pick off their main jumpers.
Why weren’t eight-man lineouts used to confront the home side with more jumpers to isolate?
Why wasn’t the short, sharp throw to the front, an unstoppable ploy, used?
This same inability to adjust their lineouts plays applied, too, to the scrums, a facet of play the Brumbies were assumed to have an advantage over the Jaguares.
In the first few scrums, for instance, the Brumbies allowed the Jaguares props to collapse, without incurring a penalty from Mike Fraser, a referee admittedly who seemed to be reluctant to rule decisively on scrum infringements.
In this circumstance, a smart side will virtually force the referee to be more decisive when they are in the ascendency.
It will be interesting to see if the Crusaders allow the Jaguares to collapse scrums to prevent being overwhelmed in the final at Christchurch next Saturday.
My guess is that the Crusaders will exploit the Argentinian weakness at scrums and will make this clear to the referee in the expectation of penalties to advance their cause.
After 20 minutes, the Brumbies were already down 20-0. As they were playing away from home, this huge deficit represented a disastrous start.
There was no second-half surge along the lines of the Hurricanes fight-back against a dominant Crusaders side.
The Brumbies started and ended with a whimper.
Jamie Pandaram in The Sunday Telegraph (‘Plain And Suffering’) makes this point about the Brumbies’ 80-minute collapse and the impact of this collapse chances of the Wallabies at the coming Rugby World Cup tournament in Japan:
“Australia is in the midst of its longest stretch without representation in a grand final since Super Rugby began in 1996 – and the national team is set to suffer.
“An entire World Cup cycle has passed without an Australian team making the decider. The Brumbies (suffered)… their heaviest playoff defeat in history.
“The 39 -7 loss means the last Australian team in a grand final was the title-winning Waratahs in 2014.”
Several reasons have been offered to explain the Brumbies’ poor performance.
The trip from Canberra to Estadio Jose Amalfitani Stadium in Buenos Aires took over 30 hours.
Moreover, the Brumbies played the match on a Friday, Argentinian time, which further concentrated the effects of the arduous travel by reducing the amount of time.
A further factor was that the Brumbies suffered from “finals nerves,” as one reporter noted.
The last time the Brumbies played in a Super Rugby grand final was in 2013 when the Chiefs defeated the home side in Canberra, 27-22.
The Crusaders, by way of contrast, have contested the last two grand finals, winning both of them.
This experience of winning critical matches revealed itself when the Hurricanes turned on a terrific second-half assault on Saturday night that would have overwhelmed most teams, but not the Crusaders, who are now experienced at toughing out tight victories.
It was noticeable, for instance, that the Brumbies tight five, an all-Wallabies combination which had dominated all their opponents in a seven-match winning streak, was totally out-played by a Jaguares pack that was loaded with Test match experience in all the positions.
Finals nerves, which is really a reflection of inexperience in winning must-win matches, was a more important factor in the Brumbies’ loss than the travel.
The point here is that the Brumbies played poorly right from the beginning of the match. Normally the tiredness factor kicks in during the second half.
They were a distracted, off-their-game team from the kick-off.
There is one other factor which is controversial but relevant, in my opinion. This is the reluctance by Rugby Australia to tell the Polynesian players how they can express their Christian beliefs.
Weeks ago, Rugby Australia promised these players that they would provide a guide to how the Polynesian Christians could express their religious beliefs and not be subjected to the same treatment as Israel Folau.
To my understanding, no guide has been produced.
What this means is that the Polynesian Christians playing Super Rugby are unsure how they can express their faith.
Can they, for instance, sing a hymn after a match, as the Fijians do?
Can they form a prayer circle on the field after a match, with opposition players joining in?
Can they wear Christian artefacts without incurring the wrath of Rugby Australia or sponsors determined to enforce their politically correct viewpoints?
I saw one of the Crusaders wearing a wrist band with a cross inked on it.
This simple gesture of Christian belief used to be a common practice with players of faith within the Australian conference.
No players in the Brumbies, though, expressed their faith in this way in the Jaguares match.
My guess is the Australian Polynesian rugby players right now are wary of expressing their religious beliefs, even allowable ones, for fear of falling foul of Rugby Australia.
What this all means, in my opinion, is that coach Michael Cheika is facing a perfect storm in preparing the Wallabies for a winning Rugby World Cup 2019 tournament.
First, there is no dominant Australian Super Rugby side to build a winning Test team around. A Brumbies side with nine Test players was overwhelmed by a Jaguares side with 14.
Second, the best Australian players are out of form, and not one player in all the Super Rugby sides has recent experience of winning an absolutely must-win match.
Three, without Israel Folau there is no genuine world-class, match-winning player in Australia.
Four, many of the World Cup players know that the coach and captain of the Wallabies say that they wouldn’t play with their mate and most iconic Polynesian Christian player of his generation.
It seems to me that the Wallabies’ Rugby World Cup match against Fiji, the most religious team in world rugby, will have some of the hallmarks of an old-fashioned Masons versus Catholics stoush.