As Brad Thorn would put it about his former teams the Crusaders and the Broncos as well as rugby league in general, I am “quite fond” of the Brumbies.
I moved to Canberra 14 years ago for four years and really came to appreciate how much Canberrans love their great rugby team. And why wouldn’t they? In their short history the Brumbies have forged a place in Super Rugby folklore as the most consistent Australian franchise and have nurtured Wallabies legends such as George Gregan, Stephen Larkham, George Smith and Stirling Mortlock to name a few.
That’s why it’s a little disappointing that following a great match at Suncorp Stadium on Saturday night Brumbies coach Dan McKeller and captain Allan Alaalatoa bleated about Reds tighthead prop Taniela Tupou’s scrummaging. As Thorn alluded to, the main reason Tupou owned Brumbies loosehead Scott Sio is that he is a 138-kilogram bundle of muscle and bone who has been taught to scrummage well by the Reds.
Deal with it, Dan and Allan. Some men are stars and others live in their shadows. Complaining in a press conference because your team lacked the ability to win the scrum is pretty poor form.
Unfortunately it wasn’t the only bit of poor form by the Brumbies on the night. Sitting not far from the sideline, the view was clear as they systematically engaged in a lot of cheap off-the-ball play, pushes in the back and jersey pulling mainly. The worst offender was Tevita Kuridrani. The K-Train has been a legend of Aussie rugby over the years, but he looks so unfit at the moment that I felt like asking around for an asthma puffer and offering it to him. Kuridrani was so puffed early in the game that he couldn’t catch a ball to save himself and missed tackles when he would never have done so previously. All he had left when faced with the Wonder Kid Jordan Petaia were cheap shoves in the back.
Is that the sort of thing that a World Cup final try-scorer like Kuridrani wants to be remembered for? Is this the sort of team culture Dan McKeller wants for his legacy at the Brumbies, when he has been so committed to improving the Brumbies attack beyond the ubiquitous rolling maul? I reckon that the Brumbies legacy deserves better additions than that.
It was clear that the Brumbies were using the dead rubber to try some attacking moves from their own half. Brumbies fullback Tom Banks ran the ball back rather than kicking it – he also stepped up to first receiver on at least one occasion – and there was an attempted counter-attack from the Brumbies’ own line. This was a good start for the Brumbies, but it is uncertain whether they have the tools in the shed to make that sort of attack really effective in the next two weeks.
In contrast the Reds have invested two years with Jim McKay as their attack coach, learning his practices on unstructured play, with all the mistakes and criticism risk-taking attracts. What is notably superior about the Reds attack is the reaction time when there is an unplanned occurrence, the awareness of space, the standard of support play and the consequent confidence of players that if they offload, their teammates will be where they should.
What is telling is the number of times a risky offload is made that goes to ground but is still picked up to maintain possession and often score. These players have complete confidence in each other, making their attack at tool no other Australian team presently enjoys. Good on the Brumbies for trying, though, and if they keep doing so over the next two weeks and if Kuridrani does twice the usual number of star jumps, perhaps they will get better results than they did from their cheap play.
For the Reds, though, facing the Brumbies is not guaranteed as they have the Rebels to contend with in the semi-final next week at Suncorp. They are playing well enough to suggest that it is their game to lose. However, the try they allowed the Brumbies to score off the lineout at halftime gives a pretty strong hint of how that could happen. From the sidelines the loss of focus and urgency as the siren went off was palpable. The Reds checked out and paid the price.
There are only 80 minutes to play next week and, if the Reds get that right, another 80 to glory. Skills-wise these Reds have the tools in the box, but the real battle is for mental perfection, as it has been all season.