The Brumbies were both deserved and expected winners of the inaugural Super Rugby AU title. Now Dan McKellar’s men are tasked with defending their crown.
That looks like it will be a more difficult proposition than winning it in the first place. While the Ponies still have one of the stronger squads in Australia, it’s not as far ahead of the competition as it was last year – in fact, it’s no longer the clear no.1.
Unsurprisingly for a team which has been at the top of Australian rugby for some time now, there’s been relatively little turnover in the Brumbies’ squad.
Grand final hero Lachie McCaffrey has made a late-career change to Japan’s Top League and Will Miller has retired, while Wallabies Tevita Kuridrani and Joe Powell have moved to the Force and Rebels respectively.
Nic White will be available for a full season after chiming in for the last few rounds in 2020, and former New Zealand under 20s representative James Tucker bolsters the second-row stocks.
But for the most part, this is the same Brumbies cohort which won the title last year.
Allan Alaalatoa, Jahrome Brown, Tom Cusack, Folau Fainga’a, Nick Frost, Archer Holz, Tom Hooper, Harry Lloyd, Lachlan Lonergan, Connal McInerney, Cadeyrn Neville, Billy Pollard, Luke Reimer, Tom Ross, Pete Samu, Rory Scott, Scott Sio, James Slipper, Darcy Swain, James Tucker, Rob Valetini
Lachie Albert, Tom Banks, Issak Fines, Mack Hansen, Len Ikitau, Solomone Kata, Bayley Kuenzle, Noah Lolesio, Ryan Lonergan, Andy Muirhead, Reesjan Pasitoa, Irae Simone, Reece Tapine, Nic White, Tom Wright
Captain: Allan Alaalatoa
Coach: Dan McKellar
Unsurprisingly, there is no shortage of strengths in this Brumbies side. Of their first-choice backline, only one player, Andy Muirhead, wasn’t in the Wallabies squad last year, and the forward pack is similarly lined with internationals.
With the ball in hand, they’re blessed with a number of options to direct the attack. Nic White is an excellent playmaker at scrumhalf, inside centre Irae Simone stepped up into a more influential role to great effect last year, and Noah Lolesio capped off his stellar debut season by winning player of the match in the final at flyhalf.
With White’s experience, running much of their play off nine would be a sensible option, but regardless of who takes the playmaking brunt, the range of options will make it difficult for opposition defences to stifle the Brumbies.
Defence was a real strength of the Canberrans’ in 2020. On most metrics they led the competition, including points and tries conceded, as well as number of games conceding four tries or more:
If they can replicate that reliable, consistent effort without the ball this year, it’ll mean the Brumbies will once again be a difficult side to beat.
Making them an even tougher proposition was their ability to succeed in tough games. Two of their wins – in Round 3 versus the Waratahs and Round 5 against the Reds – were decided by a combined three points, a further couple had single-digit margins, including the final, and they didn’t lose a single close game in Super Rugby AU.
That speaks to a team which just knows how to win and close out matches, something which will very much come in handy towards the end of the season.
Then there’s the rolling maul. It’s hardly worth spending much time discussing this because it’s such an obvious strength for the Brumbies, and has been for some time. Suffice to say, though, that the side are clinical from close-range lineouts, meaning any penalty given away by the opposition in their own half will likely cost five points, not three.
The Brumbies’ depth has taken something of a tumble this year. Losing Lachie McCaffrey and Will Miller is a significant blow to the back row – both started in the final against the Reds with McCaffrey playing a blinder in his final game for the side.
Further up the pack, Scott Sio’s diminishing form means the front row isn’t quite as imposing as it was this time last year.
Tevita Kuridrani wasn’t at his best in 2020, but his move to the Force nonetheless deprives the Brumbies of a top-tier defensive organiser and an experienced option at outside centre, and puts pressure on youngster Len Ikitau to really own that position from day dot.
Squad depth is in fact already being tested before a game has been played, with gun winger Tom Wright ruled out for at least half the season. Wright was lethal in the opening rounds of the 2020 AU season, finished alongside Folau Fainga’a as the club’s leading try-scorer, and looked entirely comfortable in Wallaby gold at the end of the year.
He’d be a loss irrespective of the options to replace him, but such is the state of the Brumbies’ wing stocks that Wright’s absence has sparked a bit of somewhat-serious talk about playing scrumhalf Issak Fines out wide. Rapid as Fines is, that doesn’t exactly bode well.
Accurate goalkicking has also never been a strength of this side – or at least not for a long time. Noah Lolesio could only manage 61 per cent from the tee before COVID struck, and then the quartet who shared the duties in Super Rugby AU went at a nigh-identical 62 per cent clip.
The obvious caveat there is the source of the Brumbies’ tries. Given so many come in the wide channels off the rolling maul, Lolesio et al aren’t exactly being gifted the easiest of conversion opportunities. And again, because of the maul’s efficiency, they rarely if ever take easy penalty shots.
Difficult kicks or not, though, the fact is the ACT leave plenty of points behind because they just don’t turn their fives into sevens particularly often. Eventually, it’ll hurt them.
The back row, and particularly the depth there, has been a strength of the Brumbies’ for a number of seasons. It was fairly common for Dan McKellar to switch up his pair of breakaways, whether that was by swapping Tom Cusack with Will Miller or using Lachie McCaffrey in place of Rob Valetini.
With McCaffrey and Miller gone, that’s obviously no longer an option, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see a clear-cut first-choice back row established in Canberra this year.
Pete Samu and Valetini are the two most talented players in that unit, but while Samu has established himself as a reliable top-quality performer at Super Rugby level, his younger back-row partner hasn’t quite yet – understandably so given how injuries hampered his initiation to professional rugby.
Still, after starting much of the season at number six, missing out on a starting position in last year’s final would have been a disappointment for Valetini, when he was limited to a bench impact role with McAffrey starring at blindside flanker.
Given he inked his first contract with the Brumbies back in 2017, it’s easy to forget Valetini is still just 22 with lots of improvement left in him. And he certainly has the physical tools to be a dominant presence on the side of the ruck: listed at 113kg and 193cm, he has both good size and athleticism.
He offers plenty of strength with ball in hand and his height makes him a good lineout receiver, but could do with more nous around the breakdown and ground in general – the kind that McAffrey displayed with such aplomb in the final.
If he can add that to his game, the back-row departures suddenly won’t become much of an issue at all for the Brumbies, and indeed the 6-8 combination with Samu will be the strongest in the competition, at least until Liam Wright returns for the Reds in a couple of months.
Plus, a breakout season could mean there’s a certain gold jersey with the number six on the back coming Valetini’s way.
There’s no doubt the Brumbies are firmly in the mix to go back-to-back. They have an impressive 9-10-12 axis, a dominant maul, and a knack for winning close games.
But the gap has closed to the rest of the competition, and the depth in Canberra isn’t quite as enviable as it was in 2020. Anything less than an appearance in the final will be a massive disappointment, but winning consecutive titles might just be a step too far.