In the immediate aftermath of the Brumbies’ 28-23 Super Rugby AU final victory over the Reds – a fitting finale to what grew into a highly enjoyable tournament – Fox Sports commentator George Gregan described how, “the Brumbies are a very proud rugby nation.”
It was the kind of thing you’d expect to hear from Borat, or perhaps Joe Biden or George Bush Jr. Or even a state premier, drunk on secessionist COVID-juice, making full use of the powers afforded them in recent months.
To be fair to Gregan, a winner of two Super Rugby titles himself in 2001 and 2004, we knew what he meant. In a domestic sporting landscape where the focus invariably settles on the more populous Queensland, New South Wales and Victorian seaboard, when it comes to rugby, the ACT has long fought above its weight.
And for some years now, the Brumbies have consistently been Australia’s best-run and best-performed franchise, albeit without success in the full Super Rugby competition. Which is also where coach Dan McKellar was coming from when he said, before the final, “we want our program to be considered equal to your Leinsters, Saracens and Crusaders.”
Well perhaps not exactly like Saracens, but even so, we too knew exactly what McKellar was getting at. Ultimately, what won the Brumbies this title over the Reds, was that their franchise was better prepared and ready for it. Their attention to detail was superior, and – albeit with a few scrum flutters on the night – their execution more precise.
Nowhere was this demonstrated more than at the attacking breakdown, where the Brumbies’ ball runners repeatedly drove through the tackle with strong shoulders, with their pack, with the impressive Cadeyrn Neville at the helm, fast, powerful and accurate in the clean-out.
This allowed two things. It effectively played the dangerous Fraser McReight out of the contest, and provided a platform of fast ball for halfback Joe Powell to have his best match in some time, decisive in his decision making and crisp in his passing.
15-3 after thirty minutes was a fair reflection of the Brumbies’ dominance, although there was always the sense that the Reds, if they could only stop giving away cheap penalties and secure their own line-out ball, were in touch.
And so it proved, when a bit of luck swung their way, a spilled pass ricocheting to Jordan Petaia, who, with the defensive line thrown out of whack, nonchalantly strolled through a hole to put Harry Wilson in. A James O’Connor conversion and a penalty later, and the lead at halftime was cut to just two points.
The Reds’ luck quickly turned south however, Petaia not reappearing after the break, and Lukhan Salakaia-Loto joining him on the sideline, somehow managing to hit his head in a tackle gone wrong, on Lachlan McCaffrey.
It was here that the Brumbies upped the tempo, superior field position allowing Noah Lolesio to punch over a penalty and a drop goal, before Andy Muirhead – who had done superbly to find the line in the first half – tapped and ran a penalty to the try line, opening up the space on the outside for Tom Banks to score.
If there has one thing that has defined the Reds during Brad Thorn’s tenure is that they are never done, even when they’ve looked in danger of being overrun. And so it was again, some tenacious scrapping along with the benefit of the doubt going their way in Angus Blyth’s try, meaning that at 65 minutes, it was back to 28-23.
At that point, McKellar must have been thinking, ‘how the hell did we get to here?’
By then, cracks were starting to appear. Banks seemingly forgot all about the new goal-line dropout law, and replacement halfback Nic White gave away four penalties on his own, while determining that his role wasn’t so much to be a ‘finisher’, but a ‘closer’, to take all of the fizz out of the contest, and force the Reds to win it from tight against the sideline, in their own half.
It reeked of shutting up shop too soon, especially with the lead as narrow as five points. But perhaps the Brumbies knew, that in the pressure of a final, the Reds would revert to type.
Pre-COVID, when Super Rugby was still spread across five nations, the Reds won only two of seven matches, let down time and again by ill-discipline and the poorest lineout in the competition.
Here, with the title on the line in the final minutes, with a throw to a lineout only metres from the Brumbies’ try-line, the Reds were once again unable to execute, in doing so, denying themselves the opportunity for glory.
They should reflect too on four penalties conceded for high tackles, plus the tip tackle by Filipo Daugunu which left them a player down at a crucial time in the match. Sure, they got some of that back at the scrum, but not enough to swing the balance their way.
It wasn’t Daugunu’s night, he too falling back into old bad habits, trying to make something happen under the pressure of being behind in a final. But he hasn’t suddenly become slower or less talented, and one imagines he will benefit hugely from the intense coaching environment that will be provided him as the Wallabies’ squad now heads into camp.
Perhaps Blyth will have woken yesterday ruing his decision to let a teammate loose on his hair, but Reds’ fans must surely be satisfied with the progress their side has made this season, with the promise of further steps to come next year.
No question, the presence of Izaack Rodda was missed, but if the price to be paid for that, and other painful personnel changes over the last two years, is the emergence of a values system and a method of playing, adhered to by a squad, most of whom have their best rugby ahead of them, then that’s a clear win.
At the start of the year, the talk from commentators in the know, and some at Rugby Australia, was that all franchises were solidly on the right path, except for question marks around Brad Thorn’s all-round coaching prowess. To the Reds’ credit they found the right personnel to plug those holes, and to Thorn’s credit, he embraced the support systems set-up around him.
It is to McKellar and his team however, that the spoils deservedly go. The Brumbies haven’t always been as dominant or consistent as what they threatened to be. But with an extra week to prepare, and home ground advantage (both of which they earned), they put in what was, aside from their 26-14 win against the Chiefs in Hamilton, their most convincing performance of the year. Right when it counted.
With McKellar this week stepping back from a Wallabies’ assistant coaching role, in favour of cementing in a Brumbies’ dynasty, there is nothing to suggest that the designer craft beer that was flowing around their changing room post-match (it is 2020 after all), won’t be doing so again next season.
That season, by the way, is looking increasingly like more of the same, as New Zealand Rugby and Rugby Australia come to the realisation that even if they’ve finally come to understand a bit more about each other, governments aren’t yet in a position to allow them to plan a trans-Tasman competition with any baked-in certainty.
Perhaps a two-teams each cross-over finals series might be the best they can manage, while both countries would love a sixth team each, to pad out the fixture. Given the myriad factors at play, that would represent a largely popular outcome.
Every so often New Zealand rugby fans are reminded of the magic that is the Ranfurly Shield, and so it was again on Saturday afternoon, when Taranaki, for the second time in three years, took down Canterbury, 23-22 to add another chapter to their proud shield history.
Any side with a Barrett at 10 and 15 is always going to be hard to beat, even when the shield holder is studded with All Blacks, but it was a powerhouse effort from the amber and black pack that laid the foundation for a winning 20-3 first-half lead.
The other point of difference was the virtuoso pilfering of Lachlan Boshier – seemingly stealing the ball at will, and in the process, providing more food for thought for the All Blacks’ selection panel, who couldn’t find a place for him in their initial 35-man squad.
At least Boshier can count himself lucky to have been merely omitted, as opposed to suffering the fate of former player and Georgia seven’s coach Ramaz Kharazishvili who, at the union’s offices last week, was shot – by none other than the vice-president of the Georgian rugby union!
One can only imagine what Borat would make of that one. And they say that rugby politics in Australia is toxic!