Three significant boxes were ticked over the last few days, as Australia’s domestic Super Rugby replacement for the 2020 season edges closer to its yet-to-be-announced but widely accepted July 4 start date.
Trial form is not indicative of season form, as Dan McKellar pointed out. The Brumbies regularly smack the Rebels in trials but don’t carry it into the season proper.
It’s one thing to play on a country paddock where there is a carnival atmosphere, and another to run out on your own home paddock after all the hype and build-up with ground announcers, a long warm-up in front of your fans, fireworks, noisy PA systems and all the hype of game day, with points and rep honours on the line.
If having the best stadium in Australia was the main factor, the Reds would win it every year, because Suncorp is such a brilliant stadium.
I haven’t yet been to AAMI Park, I’m not a huge fan of the old SFS but I absolutely love going to Brumbies home games at Bruce Stadium. It’s not the best home ground in the world, parking is okay, it’s a bit of a way out of town, and there is usually a massive traffic jam getting out of there, but it has a lot of charm.
The Brumbies are doing all kinds of things to make the game-day experience a good one this year, so it is great to see that interest coming back in the capital, because it was getting a bit lean for a while.
We used to buy the cheapest tickets in the house but never sit in them, because if you did, you could be frozen alive by kick-off time. Instead, we would stand up behind the railing on the concourse in front of the bars – easy to get a drink and you were guaranteed to meet heaps of your mates. Canberra is a big country town, after all.
You could stand and watch the frost falling down on the mums and dads and kids buried under a blanket or two. It was especially good when we played the Waratahs – their fans did nothing but complain about the cold. I mean, how soft are they?
Anyway, the Brums had a great outing on the weekend, although the Rebels did put their second XV on in the second half. But McKellar made his rotations wisely and we got a pretty good look at just about everyone.
I enjoyed watching Noah Lolesio, then Bayley Kuenzle at ten and Reesjan Pasitoa at 12. There is a serious amount of talent there.
The recruitment of Pasitoa is akin to the recruitment of Matt Toomua ten years ago. The Brums snaffled him from under Queensland’s noses because at the time Quade Cooper was the new Messiah in Queensland. Toomua had a couple of injuries but as he hit his 20s and hit his straps, he emerged as a tough, no-nonsense ten who not only took the ball to the line, but could put on some pretty good hits, so woe betide anyone who thought his channel was easy metres.
Tom Banks had his usual good game and then Mack Hansen moved seamlessly into the 15 spot. Tom Wright and Solomone Kata (tree stumps on legs) had great games. Kata up the middle was dangerous.
The unsung Andy Muirhead continues to impress with his two tries. He definitely knows how to find the line. Tevita Kuridrani and Wright were solid and we have strength right across the board. Toni Pulu looked safe when he got his chances. It will be an interesting challenge for Peter Hewat and McKellar to get their starting combos right.
The Brum scrum was fantastic all night and they have great choices in all positions. I have a feeling that Cadeyrn Neville might just shade his way into the match-day 23, even the starting XV, and James Slipper at tighthead was very encouraging.
Joe Powell was great as always, and the team lost nothing when Lachlan Loneragan came on, and it was great to see Tom Cusack and Pete Samu leading from the front. We are in for a good season.
The Rebels played well too, but you might have to ask a question or two about their depth.
Now to the Reds versus the Waratahs.
James O’Connor and Jordan Petaia are a mouthwatering prospect. There will be no Filipo Daugunu for the next four weeks. That is tough! Five tries and five weeks holiday all in the same game.
They are two great teams with a lot of depth in forwards.
Tate McDermott and Isaac Lucas are going from strength to strength.
Coach Brad Thorn definitely appears to have settled on Lucas. While he tried to be non-committal about individuals in the presser, he did hint that Lucas and O’Connor is a settled combination and was very enthusiastic about the strike power of the whole back line.
And fair enough – I thought Henry Speight might go to Queensland as a bench-warmer, but he showed that he is still that greyhound that we knew at the Brumbies. He was great in both attack and defence, and owns that five-metre wide channel.
Mack Mason suffered a groin strain in the second half, which could create an opportunity for Will Harrison or even Mark Nawaqanitawase to start the opening round.
The Reds had a creditable 28-19 win, although the Waratahs scored two late tries to bring it closer. But numerous handling errors by the Waratahs and a dominant effort from the Queensland forwards sealed their fate.
Three of Queensland’s front-line players – lock Izack Rodda (ankle) and front-rowers Harry Hoopert (neck) and JP Smith (knee) – have missed both trials, so there is a bit more depth to come.
Liam Wright in his presser was a bit concerned about the two yellow cards, and conceded that they have work to do, but was happy that they held the Tahs scoreless during the two cards. I wouldn’t read much into that, because the Kiwi and SA teams will always make you pay in that situation.
So flyhalf for the Tahs is still up in the air. Mason is suffering a groin strain, Harrison performed well for the second week running and Kurtley Beale could yet be in the mix, but a surprise bolter could be Mark Nawaqanitawase, who played on the wing after his superb efforts at fullback last week.
There is no question that he is a top-flight athlete capable of finding time and space, and if he can direct a back line around and put players through holes, then it only remains to see how his kicking game would work.
It is heartening to see that the Wallabies coach is saddled with that kind of problem after the dearth of quality number tens we have had lately, with no disrespect to Bernard Foley or Christian Lealiifano. You also have Toomua and Max Deegan at the Rebels, Lolesio, Kuenzle and Pasitoa at the Brumbies, Lucas, Bryce Hegarty and Hamish Stewart at the Reds, so the selection pressure is now on like we haven’t seen it in years.
Overall, the Australian conference is in reasonably good shape and in good hands, and with Dave Rennie laying down the framework and his requirements this week, no player should think that his jersey is safe.
The Brumbies versus the Reds should be a litmus test for how the Aussie conference will unfold.
My money is on the Brumbies.
Bring it on!