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Opinion

Super Rugby 2020 preview: ACT Brumbies

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29th January, 2020
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After falling just short of a Super Rugby final last year, a relatively settled squad – particularly by post-World Cup standards – has the Brumbies primed for a similarly successful 2020 season.

Squad

There’s been far less upheaval in Canberra than in other Australian franchises.

As with all teams, the Brumbies have lost some key players following the World Cup. Chief amongst them are Wallabies Rory Arnold and Christian Lealiifano, and Arnold’s locking partner Sam Carter has also left. David Pocock is technically a loss, however he managed only 140 minutes on the park last year. Henry Speight’s departure to the Reds may be felt more keenly.

Will Miller has joined from the Waratahs and adds depth to some already-impressive back-row stocks, while Solomone Kata has made the switch from rugby league.

Young flyhalves Noah Lolesio and Reesjan Pasitoa are exciting replacements for Lealiifano, even if it’s likely to be a season or two before we see much of the 18-year-old Pasitoa.

Lolesio isn’t the only one of last year’s Junior Wallabies squad on the Brumbies’ list, with hooker Lachlan Lonergan and lock Nick Frost two of Australian rugby’s more talented young forwards.

Forwards
Allan Alaalatoa, Jahrome Brown, Tom Cusack, Murray Douglas, Blake Enever, Folau Fainga’a, Nick Frost, Leslie Leulua’iali’i-Makin, Harrison Lloyd, Lachlan Lonergan, Lachlan McCaffrey, Connal McInerney, Will Miller, Cadeyrn Neville, Tom Ross, Pete Samu, Scott Sio, James Slipper, Darcy Swain, Rob Valetini, Shambeckler Vui

Backs
Tom Banks, Issak Fines, Mack Hansen, Len Ikitau, Solomone Kata, Bayley Kuenzle, Tevita Kuridrani, Noah Lolesio, Ryan Lonergan, Andy Muirhead, Reesjan Pasitoa, Guy Porter, Joe Powell, Toni Pulu, Irae Simone, Tom Wright

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Captain: Allan Alaalatoa
Coach: Dan McKellar

Ins: Issak Fines, Nick Frost, Solomone Kata, Harry Lloyd, Noah Lolesio, Lachlan Lonergan, Cadeyrn Neville, Will Miller, Reesjan Pasitoa, Guy Porter, Sham Vui

Outs: Rory Arnold, Sam Carter, Vunipola Fifita, Wharenui Hawera, Ben Hyne, Jordan Jackson-Hope, Christian Lealiifano, Matt Lucas, Josh Mann-Rea, Chance Peni, David Pocock, Henry Speight, Lausii Taliauli

Christian Lealiifano

Christian Lealiifano and David Pocock are two of the Brumbies’ high-profile departures. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Strengths

Unlike the other Australian sides, the Brumbies’ strength comes up front. This was one of the better packs in Super Rugby last year, and certainly the best in Australia.

If they continue their form of last year, the front row of Scott Sio, Folau Fainga’a and new captain Allan Alaalatoa should be the trio which starts for the Wallabies later in 2020. Fainaga’a in particular had a phenomenal 2019, finding himself in an unusually high position on the try-scorers list for a hooker; only Sevu Reece (15) and Ngani Laumape (13) scored more than his 12.

The back row, too, is an impressive unit. Both Rob Valetini and Pete Samu are a formidable 6-8 partnership, with Samu’s injury-forced absence from last year’s semi-final – after he’d scored a first-half double in the quarters – a significant factor in the loss to the Jaguares.

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Plus, any man who can pull off the mullet/tucked-in shirt combination is a force to be reckoned with.

With a balanced squad, there’s not much of a drop-off when it comes to the backs.

Tevita Kuridrani remains the best defensive 13 in Australia and has a well-established partnership with Irae Simone.

Tom Banks was desperately unlucky to miss the World Cup squad last year, and we can expect to see far more of both him and Joe Powell in green and gold this year. Halfback Powell has become a reliable presence at the base of the ruck, and like Kuridrani is probably the best in Australia in his position defensively.

Speight is a loss, however the fact new signing Solomone Kata has pipped the experienced Toni Pulu to start on the wing in Round 1 indicates the Brumbies think they’ve got a pretty handy replacement on their hands.

Brumbies

Pete Samu, mullet and all. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

Weaknesses

While the Brumbies might not have lost the volume of players that other sides have, there’s some class in those who have left. The departures of Rory Arnold, Sam Carter and Christian Lealiifano, in particular, could prove detrimental to their hopes.

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Arnold was the best player in Australian rugby before heading to Toulouse, dominating both around the field and at the set-piece. With Carter gone, too, it leaves the side looking light in the second row; their starters for the Round 1 clash against the Reds, Murray Douglas and Darcy Swain, played 591 minutes between them last year. Arnold and Carter combined for over 2200.

It’s not just sheer amount of work they’ll have to replace, but the quality of it, too. Carter was a defensive workhorse, making over 201 tackles for the season. Only Michael Hooper (223) and Matt Todd (208) got through more in all of Super Rugby. Add in Arnold’s defensive workload, and there’s a considerable gap to fill:

It’s worth noting Douglas and Swain got through more tackles per 80 minutes than the men they’re replacing, but that higher workload is to be expected from players deployed in shorter, sharper stints.

Given how much the Brumbies leant on their rolling maul in attack, Swain and Douglas – and whoever else ends up playing significant minutes there – will have to quickly and seamlessly slot into more significant roles in the lineout, too.

As for Lealiifano’s absence, it leaves the Brumbies needing a new playmaker. The ACT skipper was tremendous in his farewell Super Rugby season, forcing his way into the World Cup squad for an international comeback all rugby fans could get right behind.

The man replacing him? He’s worth taking a closer look at…

Key player: Noah Lolesio

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It’s a little unfair to label someone who only turned 20 a little over a month ago as the key player for a side coming off a semi-finals appearance. Noah Lolesio, though, looks to be capable of handling pressure coolly.

“What’s pressure?” was the response he gave coach Dan McKellar when asked to take on kicking duties for the Canberra Vikings last NRC.

One assumes he’ll find out what it is when he’s asked to guide his side around the park to start his Super Rugby career.

No one should expect Lolesio to take absolute command of this side with dominant, one-man shows. It’s not reasonable to demand that from a rookie, nor is it the role the Brumbies need from him.

Lealiifano was superb without overplaying his hand last year, kicking well in play, making his tackles and ensuring the ball went to the backs at the right time. It’s easier said than done of course, but Lolesio need do no more than that.

Critical will be how he responds to errors and poor games. They’re going to happen in a debut season, no matter how talented you are. If he can reply to those setbacks with calm confidence and desire to improve, he’ll cement himself at this level quickly.

He’ll also give the Brumbies a steady presence at flyhalf – a scenario far preferable to rotating rookies in and out of the no.10 jersey.

Noah Lolesio in action for the Canberra Vikings

Noah Lolesio in action for the Canberra Vikings. (Photo by James Worsfold/Getty Images)

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Young gun to watch: Nick Frost

Rory Arnold and Sam Carter’s aforementioned departures will open up opportunities for some of the Brumbies’ younger locks to emerge. He isn’t on the teamsheet for Round 1, but look for Nick Frost to make the most of his minutes when they do come later in the season.

There’s plenty to like about the 20-year-old. His frame, for one – he stands at 206cm tall. The impressions he’s left on coaches aren’t bad, either – Matt Williams labelled him the most talented lock of his age he’d seen since John Eales.

And then there’s the athleticism. How’s this try from last year?

Frost had seemed to have spurned Australian rugby when he signed for the Crusaders development program in 2017. That’s not exactly a team known for producing poor footballers.

Now back in Australia and with an opportunity to force his way into the Brumbies side over the course of his two-year deal – and hopefully beyond – Frost is one of the many Junior Wallabies well worth keeping an eye on this season.

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Verdict

There are few reasons to bet against the Brumbies making another finals charge in 2020. The only real questions they have are confined to two positions, with the bulk of the squad from last year’s successful season remaining.

If Lolesio and the new-look second row find their feet quickly, the semi-finals and beyond are a realistic goal. At any rate, we should see this side in the post-season once again.

Prediction: First in the Australian conference.