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Opinion

Five talking points from the Super Rugby AU final

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19th September, 2020
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The Super Rugby AU final between the Brumbies and Reds was a bonafide thriller.

The Brumbies were better for longer periods and deserved their 28-23 win, but a gutsy effort from the Reds made for a superb match which was still in the balance until the final whistle.

The Queensland were able to put together such a challenge despite having to travel to Canberra on the day of the final is mightily impressive, even more so when you consider the Brumbies were far better rested than their opponents.

Here are five talking points from the nailbiter of a decider.

Super Rugby AU gets the thrilling finish it deserves
Remember when all the talk about Super Rugby AU was about its poor quality? Those critics have little to complain about now.

The competition got off to a slow start, one unfairly exacerbated by the obscene quality on display in the corresponding Aotearoa competition. But it’s improved each week, and the last month or so has seen some excellent rugby played.

It was fitting, then, that the final, the one thing Super Rugby Aotearoa lacked, was such a thriller. The Brumbies threatened to pull away at the halfway point of each period only for the Reds to show real guts and determination – and ample skill – to keep it close and almost snatch the win.

With the one exception of a trademark rolling maul try to the Brumbies, all of the five-pointers featured some unreal lead-up play. Andy Muirhead had no right to muscle his way through for his try, Jordan Petaia was at his sublime best in setting up Harry Wilson, while both Tom Banks and Tate McDermott showed their running prowess in the second-half tries.

It wasn’t just the scores that were entertaining, with the entire 80 minutes a real treat for the neutral – and ACT – fans. In a year which threatened to prematurely take Super Rugby away, such a decider is well worth celebrating.

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Brumbies players celebrate

(Photo by David Gray/AFP via Getty Images)

Familiar woes hamper Reds’ chances
When these two sides met in Canberra earlier in the competition, two things cost the Reds: periods of ill-discipline, and a shoddy lineout.

Sound familiar?

While they’d been much, much better in both areas since the Round 5 loss, those two issues came to the fore once again in the decider.

The overall penalty count was almost even – 12 conceded by the Reds, 11 by the Brumbies – but Queensland’s habit of conceding them in bunches hurt them, particularly early on. They gave away six in the opening 19 minutes, by which time the hosts had run out to a 10-3 lead before adding another try shortly after.

Banks’ second-half try came on the back of a couple of infringements, and Filipo Daugunu’s yellow card, for a clumsy lifting tackle which left Angus Gardner with no choice but to reach for the pocket, gave the Brumbies ten minutes against 14 men during which they added a further three points. In a five-point win, one in which the Reds had to go for touch late instead of being able to take an entirely kickable shot a goal, that was crucial.

Speaking of the lineout, it was a mess. As with the ill-discipline, it was an issue early, with the Reds losing their first two throws, a number which would double by full-time. The real killer was the aforementioned play with seven minutes to go.

Camped in Brumbies territory and needing a try, a solid lineout from five metres out may very well have been the platform for a game-winning score, whether from a pushover, a Harry Wilson burst off the back of the maul, or sending the ball out wide with the backs in a paddock to work in.

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Instead, the butchered throw gave the home side a bit of breathing space, and they were able hold the Reds off once the play had moved back towards the 22.

You certainly can’t fault the Queenslanders’ effort, particularly given their heavier workload leading into the match and their gameday travel. But they’ll be ruing their ill-discipline and lineout woes for some time.

Brandon Paenga-Amosa looks dejected

Reds hooker Brandon Paenga-Amosa. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

There’s something about Noah
Playing for the first time in two months in a final? No biggie for Noah Lolesio.

The young flyhalf showed no signs of rust in his return to the field last night. An easy early penalty helped settle the nerves, and from then on he was excellent, making wise decisions at first receiver throughout the night.

He was instrumental in the Brumbies’ second try, first with a high kick which Daugunu knocked on and then by putting on a couple of steps to freeze the line and allow Muirhead to barge over. He kicked well from the tee and in general play. He ran the ball when the opportunity presented itself. He casually dropped over a field goal to give his side a decisive buffer on the scoreboard.

It was, in short, a performance deserving of the man of the match award.

Dan McKellar deserves some credit for selecting Lolesio (and he was also spot-on in picking Lachie McCaffrey to start, who was firmly among the Brumbies’ best), but the vast majority of the plaudits should and will go to Lolesio for being able to so assuredly step up on the big stage with no recent gametime.

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I wrote yesterday that “If he can instantly rediscover his pre-injury form, it’ll mark him as a genuine star”. Consider him marked.

Brumbies Tom Banks and Noah Lolesio celebrate a try

(Photo by David Gray/AFP via Getty Images)

Another cruel injury blow for Jordan Petaia
The first half of the final was a perfect snapshot of Jordan Petaia’s career: a moment of sheer brilliance followed by an injury.

In a crowded field, Petaia is the most exciting of the young players emerging in Australian rugby right now. He’s excellent in attack, and his ability to read the play in defence would be impressive for a veteran, let alone a young man who’s only just hit his 20s.

And yet, he’s been incapable of staying injury-free. A lisfranc injury cruelled most of his 2019 season, and had 2020 run on its original schedule he would have missed most of this year due to a busted shoulder. Just last week he failed to play out the full 80 minutes, too.

Fortunately, youth is on Petaia’s side. Aged only 20, there’s every chance his injuries are just the result of a young body which is struggling to cope with the physical demands of the professional game.

For all of Australian rugby’s sake, let’s hope it’s nothing more serious than that.

For the Reds, though, you have to wonder what difference Petaia would have made late in the final. The same goes for Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, who was a massive loss from the second row (and the lineout) when a sickening head knock forced him off just after halftime.

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With those two on the field, there’s every chance the trophy would have been headed up to Queensland.

Jordan Petaia runs the ball for the Reds

(Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

What will the Wallabies selectors make of all that?
It was mentioned on the Fox Sports commentary that this was a Wallabies selection trial. Just a tad reductionist though that was – the players were there first and foremost to be crowned champions – the match will no doubt heavily impact the first XV named under Dave Rennie’s watch.

Though it’d be a risk to thrust him into the Wallabies no.10 jersey, Lolesio showed he doesn’t have a tendency to sink when thrown in the deep end. At the very least, his performance means there’s some healthy competition at flyhalf.

Tom Banks’ form will be another highlight in the selectors’ eyes. He started Super Rugby AU slowly but has worked his way into far better form in the closing weeks, even if he’s not quite back to his best. A good outing in the final, including a strong run to the tryline for the Brumbies’ third five-pointer, could help him get the first crack at fullback.

Pete Samu continued his excellent campaign and should be an automatic selection in the back row next month, and neither Joe Powell or Tate McDermott did their selection chances any harm.

One player who did, though, was Filipo Daugunu. The winger experienced the kind of reality check we see oh so often on the sporting field, going from the best aground last week to having an absolute stinker in the decider.

He made two bad knock-ons, one of which led directly to Muirhead’s try, and was penalised for a high shot even before he was shown the yellow card. He’ll be hoping his strong overall season is enough to keep him with a shot of landing a gold jersey, but his were the kind of errors you cannot afford in Test rugby. They were harmful enough last night.

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Petaia’s injury will also be a red flag, and everyone at Wallabies HQ will hope Salakaia-Loto’s head knock isn’t as bad as it first looked.

Overall, though, there were far more positives than negatives in the final for Rennie and his assistants, and we should see a strong, youthful side named for Bledisloe 1.