It is hard to keep your feet on the ground after a game like the Brumbies played on the weekend against the Chiefs.
However, most of us probably remember a towelling handed out by the Ponies to the Hurricanes in the early weeks of the competition in 2016, and that wasn’t followed by much joy.
But there are some things I see as being potentially very significant in the way the Brumbies played as opposed to the result itself. Just maybe they hark back to a much earlier season, in 1996.
First, second, third and fourth, the Brumbies kicked the ball well into touch whenever they could to deny the Chiefs a natural strength – playing to broken field off a quick lineout. It is not that New Zealand sides can’t break you open off set plays, but their real point of difference is how they can destroy teams in broken field situations. It has driven me spare over the years to watch teams kick for maximum distance yet cede the opportunity of a contested lineout and feed one of the great strengths of New Zealand rugby.
If you think about it, it’s much better to give up ten or even 20 metres but impose your pattern by hoofing the ball into the crowd than to get a doubtful benefit that is usually made up by a hurtling Kiwi before the chase (often staggered) even arrives. If you can deny your opposition easy feeds to their strengths, you are going some way to giving yourself a chance.
In 2016 the Brumbies kicked well but relied on a defensive wall to absorb the ball being run back. It didn’t work against the better New Zealand sides later in the season. In 1996 the Brumbies just didn’t give the opposition the ball – an innovation at the time. They held it for phase after the phase and when they needed to they had several kickers with boots capable of winning most kicking duels.
On this topic, I also note that as a player, albeit a poor one, I hated endless chases upfield only to have to make a desperate attempt at a tackle on a player in space with time, motion and often velocity on their side. It was exhausting and a bit dispiriting. It isn’t the first tackle that kills you; usually it’s getting out of the ensuing ruck and chasing back to position and having to make another tackle, probably not quite in position and feeling like it will never damned well stop. The mental aspect is as big as the physical.
As it happens, most Australian teams usually have a competitive lineout, even if the scrum isn’t always so good. So, again, if you can stop the momentum and force your opponent to play to one of your competitive sets, you are giving yourself a chance. The Brumbies, despite a small Nos. 6 and 7 had some height at lock and No. 8 over the Chiefs and were able to consistently pressure and occasionally force errors from the lineout.
Next, I saw a strong showing of a skill set that has not really been perfected in this country: the offload around the corner in the tackle where it has a chance of actually doing something useful. Noah Lolesio set up the first try with just such a showing and did it often on that glorious evening. He wasn’t the only one. What the ACT players weren’t doing a lot of was tipping the ball out to someone in a worse position, with opposing players bearing down on them.
These are the stupid offloads, where risk and reward are in an inverse ratio. In 1996 the Brumbies introduced an innovative approach that enabled unheard of phases on their own ball. In 2016 it was Jake Ball honed to a finer point than ever before.
People who read my comments – congratulations on your perseverance – will know I don’t enjoy league or AFL, but it has long mystified me that in a country dominated by these sports we haven’t borrowed analogous skills, plays and ideas. League has a common heritage with rugby and there’s a lot that can be transferred, subject to some adjustments. Yet it has been the damned Kiwis, who mostly are indifferent to league, who have stolen a march and borrowed short kicking ideas, defensive patterns, offloading and short passing (as a sample) and kick passing from league while we have bumbled about trying to take the short cuts of spending big dollars on league players when we would be much better adapting the ideas and some parts of the mentality.
A big thing I saw was the Brumbies showing signs of mastering a new skill set to beat the defence. In 2016 the Brumbies essentially did very well what they had been doing for a few seasons, but there was not much indication of anything new. That doesn’t mean the win over Wellington was not a balm for the soul, but it was different to this win.
I also loved the smarts that were shown in holding off the expected second-half Waikato steamroller. The Chiefs had beaten the Crusafers in the second half in the opening round and they had rolled over the Blues as the game went on. At half time the Brumbies looked a bit more tired than Waikato as they went off and they looked like a few players were also a bit more busted up. It did not bode well.
Although there have been post-match comments about the Chiefs not being happy with starting slowly, I still think the idea is to let the other side blow themselves out attacking in the first 30 or 40 minutes and then use your superior fitness and conditioning to breach the defences in a second-half blitz on a tiring opponent.
I think what Waikato didn’t bargain for was conceding quite as big a lead as they did. The idea was to kick deep, let the usual mindless Australian running from inside the 22 to 40 smash into the usual enveloping New Zealand defence and then crush the exhausted fools in the second 40. It usually works, after all.
In the second half the Brumbies scored first in the championship minutes and then denied the Highlanders time and space. In defence they engaged in a lot of the tactics that teams like the Crusaders, Sharks et cetera engage in: turn the ruck into a dogfight but commit intelligently in terms of numbers, get as close to offside in defence as the ref will allow, hit rucks from as far to the side as refs will allow and so on. I love this when my lot do it, and of course I foam at the mouth when it is the opposition doing it.
The Brumbies also relentlessly closed the gap at the back of the lineout in defence, making it hard for the Chiefs to get a safe supply of quality back of the lineout ball. This is a source of ball that can really open up defences because it is quick and creates a lot of options for the attacking team. It almost guarantees winning the advantage line for a phase or two.
It was noticeable how hard the Chiefs found it to get quality ball on a consistent basis. A big call-out goes to the reserve hooker, Connal McInerney, starting for a change, and to the ex-Melbourne Rebels player Caderyn Neville in the second row. They not only won most of their own lineout ball, but they really made it hard for the Chiefs. Both also put in huge shifts around the ground, and McInerney was a real pest, ripping several balls in the tackle and winning a crucial defensive penalty with a nicely timed dive onto the ball in a ruck. I think it was lawful, but it was touch and go. On such things do games turn.
On this night I thought every Brumbies player outstanding, so naming those two players is not to downplay the rest – Pete Samu was a hero of Soviet Socialist Loose Forward Play, while in his own way the much smaller Will Miller was a true Stakhanovite at the ruck along with the indefatigable Rob Valetini, who I thought had his best game for positional play, consistently being where needed and helping to make his area danger zone for the opposition.
In 1996 the Brumbies took marginally legal play and hard at the ball in the ruck to real heights, denying the opposition a good platform. They had a solid scrum and a weapon of a lineout – oh, and a nice thing called the milk train, a driving maul at the line involving most of the backs as well as the forwards.
The number of times the Brumbies ripped the ball out of Chiefs attackers’ hands was also a matter of real interest. The Moo-loos, like most New Zealand teams, love to run with the ball in two hands, which makes it harder for a defender to read the next move. However, the ball in front can be vulnerable to a well-timed rip. The rips started in the first few minutes and continued to the death, when Ryan Lonergan the stubbier came on and with what seemed his first action of the game defused a dangerous Waikato rush by ripping the ball out. It was a thing of beauty. May the sun always shine on his back and his camels multiply. This also looked like a tactic specifically adapted for the Chiefs – again a point of difference to 2016.
Finally, as their defence buckled and heaved and threatened to be overwhelmed by the Chiefs panzerkeil, the Brumbies looked to have a belief in their comrades making the next tackle, the next drive on the ruck, covering the next post. There were few panicked penalties – other than the one that led to the sin-binning of James Slipper, who had a mighty game – and few examples of players over-committing at the ruck or in the tackle. Kicks continued to be punted deep into the crowd, not aimlessly hoofed downfield. The mentality under pressure was truly inspiring to watch.
In 2016 the Brumbies were rarely asked on that glorious March night to defend for grim death. In 1996 they often had to hold hard against more storied teams.
I have largely spoken of systems, tactics, skills and ideas. The players mattered (a lot) but if you get the doctrine right and the players believe in it, the players will rise to the challenge. That is why the Brumbies took a bunch of rejects, losers, dirt trackers and a few regarded as has-beens – Troy Coker and Dangerous David, for example, who are actually still capable of being a presence but on the way out – in 1996 and surprised everyone and it is why they have tended to be the driving force in Australian rugby since.
It breaks my maroon Reds heart to say it, but it’s true. David Knox, who was basically red more than blue, helped, but it was the framework that did it in 1996 and did it again on Saturday. In 1996 and 2020 I think the Brumbies are bringing some new things to the game in Australia.
Things were glorious in 2016, but anything new? Not so much. So let us be hopeful about the ACT Brumbies but let’s also hope they keep it up as hit the challenges of the Sharks – watch that ambush at Manuka in 1996 if you can – the Crusaders and the Stormers.
Let’s hope we see some more innovations to drag Australian rugby forward. It used to be Queensland that did this, and if God were really in rugby heaven, so it would and will be again.