Sitting at the top of the table without a loss to their name, it’s safe to say everything’s going as planned for the Brumbies, right?
Well, not really. Dan McKellar will be pleased with the results so far, but less so the on-field execution. His side dominated much of their Round 1 encounter with the Rebels before a second-half lapse which let Melbourne back into the game, and only just scraped past the Waratahs after the ensuing bye.
Shutting out the Force last week was an improvement but with all respect to the Western Australians, who haven’t at all looked a team without a Super Rugby game to their name in three years, a comfortable win was par for the course for the Brumbies.
The 12-0 halftime scoreline, a product of two early long-range tries, wasn’t a true reflection of the play, particularly given the Force turned down the opportunity to hit the scoreboard when awarded a kickable penalty. Admirable as Jeremy Thrush’s try-scoring intent was, you can bet on a little more pragmatism from regular skipper Ian Prior if the same scenario arises tonight against the Rebels.
Of more concern than a plucky Force having a decent share of possession and territory was that some of the set-piece wobbles which crept into the side’s play against the Tahs remained. Scott Sio gave away a number of scrum penalties, a trend which bodes poorly ahead of tomorrow night’s meeting with the Reds and the in-form Taniela Tupou.
For a side whose forward pack has been comfortably the best in Australia for some years, it was just, well, a bit odd to see their all-Wallaby front row fail to dominate the set-piece against Angus Wagner, Feleti Kaitu’u and Kieran Longbottom.
A far tougher test awaits against the Reds, or at least it will for Sio, lining up against Tupou. The 24-year-old’s work at the scrum continues to improve, his ball-running capabilities have always been devastating, and he’s added the ability to play for long, meaningful stints, rather than just the short, impactful bursts Wallabies fans are used to.
As tricky a match-up as that might be for Sio – who should really be relishing the chance to remind us all of his class against a quality opponent – opposing loosehead Dane Zander will pack down against Allan Alaalatoa in just his second Super Rugby start. It’ll be a good test for the 20-year-old, but it may also make for an entertainingly unbalanced scrum.
While the Brumbies’ set-piece has dropped off, that slump has coincided with Caderyn Neville’s absence. Such is the dearth of locks in Australian rugby right now with Rob Simmons heading overseas – and after it was an area of depth last year – that Neville will just about walk into Dave Rennie’s squad if he can find his early-year form once he gets out on the park for Super Rugby AU in the next few weeks.
At any rate, his return will help address some of the Brumbies’ recent issues, but a more immediate improvement will be welcome against the side which is currently their biggest title threat.
A finals series after Round 10 ensures this is a nice-to-win rather than must-win match, and that may be why Reds coach Brad Thorn has decided to drop Tate McDermott to the bench.
The surprising selection hasn’t exactly been met with resounding support, although he’ll certainly provide a potent running threat around the ruck with fresh legs late in the game. Looking at it with a neutral’s eyes, it’s just a shame we won’t see McDermott going head-to-head with Joe Powell from kick-off.
There are no such qualms at the back of the pack, with the two form number 8s in Australia pitted against each other.
Harry Wilson was immense at the start of the year, but he’s dropped off slightly in Super Rugby AU. Pete Samu hasn’t, continuing to show his class and make everyone wonder why on earth there wasn’t a ticket to Japan with his name on it ten months ago.
Both boast excellent running games, Samu with a little more finesse in his footwork and Wilson a level of brute strength that a 20-year-old has no right to have. It’s an enticing clash, and one which may be decided by the opposition defence.
That’s an area the Brumbies can be satisfied with after keeping the Force scoreless. Tim Sampson’s men have been a threat in attack since making their season debut in Round 2, running out to 14-0 leads in their first two matches. Consigning them to the dreaded doughnut carries more weight than what might have been predicted pre-season, and is also what gives the Canberrans an edge for Saturday night’s clash.
Add in a backline which was slick even with Noah Lolesio on the sidelines – Irae Simone and Tom Wright’s cases for Wallabies selection are only improving – and the Brumbies are in the rare position where the only major eyesore they need to address is set-piece execution.
In all likelihood, they’re going to find it in time for the finals. The Reds will just be hoping it happens after this weekend.