Sometimes you can lose a game, but there are still reasons aplenty to make you smile. That was certainly the impression created by the interviews after the conclusion of the best advertisement for Super Rugby AU so far.
From body language alone, it was hard to tell the winning from the losing coach.
The Brumbies had just lost 40-38 against their closest rivals on the ladder, the Reds, and they had lost the game on their home turf – but none of that could keep a broad grin off head coach Dan McKellar’s face.
“First and foremost, I thought it was a great contest, it would have been great to be a neutral in the stands – because that is what rugby needs,” he said.
“78 points, five tries to four. A really strong rivalry is developing between us and the Reds, they played with a really positive mindset and we went out to do the same… I would imagine we’ll be playing them again a couple more times this season.”
Contrastingly, Queensland head honcho Brad Thorn was pleased with the win away from home, but he still looked restless. He was less happy with the performance of his charges.
“It was a good game, it went right down to the wire and it was a good result. But gee, there’s a lot to work on [for us],” Thorn said.
“There are reasons why it might be a bit clunky. But this time last year, the Brumbies won the game with the last kick of the game.”
Both reactions were legitimate. The Brumbies had outscored the Reds by five tries to four, despite having to play the last half-hour of the match with their third-choice props (Harrison Lloyd and Archer Holz) on both sides of the scrum. The Ponies’ set-piece predictably collapsed, and they lost the game from a commanding position, 31-16 ahead.
When McKellar and his fellow coaches review the game this week, they will be pleased that their charges continued to score tries against the Queensland defence. They will be even more rapt that they won the battle of the back rows, which has been a key area in the developing rivalry with their interstate adversaries.
The game in Canberra illustrated how the back row as a unit can win the tactical battle against its opponents.
What does winning the tactical battle mean? It means the ability to manoeuvre your own players into their optimal positions while drawing their opposite numbers into those in which they are least effective.
The two most influential back-rowers on Saturday evening were the Brumbies’ Rob Valetini and Pete Samu. Valetini had four dominant ball-carries in nine attempts, which was four more than the Queensland back row managed in 25 total carries. Meanwhile, Samu was lethal in the wide right channel on attack all night, scoring two tries and making one offload assist in that role.
The pattern was set at the opening scrum of the game, on the home side’s right, 40 metres from the Queensland goal-line.
After sloppy handling on first phase, Valetini makes his first attacking incision of the evening, restoring momentum off a short pass from Nic White:
It always takes time for tight forwards to pull their heads out of a scrum and get into position. When play comes back to the right on third phase, the two widest players on both sides are the hookers – Folau Fainga’a for the Brumbies and Alex Mafi for the Reds:
It is on the following phase that the first hint that the Brumbies are winning the tactical battle of the back row emerges:
At the end of the play, the Reds back row has all been drawn into the midfield: Fraser McReight has been sucked into the ruck, and both Harry Wilson and Angus Scott-Young have wrapped around to the far side of it:
At the same time, in the wide shot Pete Samu and Andy Muirhead are already working their way back towards the wide right channel, which is still manned in defence by front-rowers:
At the key moment, it is Valetini, Muirhead and Samu versus Mafi, with Filipo Daugunu still desperately trying to make up ground from the backfield. It was never going to be enough to stop Samu scoring easily. It is a clear tactical win for back-row attack over back-row defence.
The Brumbies repeated the same ideas with great success throughout the course of the match:
Valetini ploughs Wilson out of the road, and all of the Reds’ back-rowers have been caught on the same side of the field when Noah Lolesio puts the diagonal grubber through for Muirhead to chase on the following play.
Even the Brumbies’ third try from short range was a miniature weaving the same tactical strands together:
Valetini carries, and the Queensland back row automatically condenses around the ball. McReight dips into the ruck, Scott-Young wraps, Wilson drops into short-side guard. This is the scenario the home side have been waiting for, because it means Samu will have a free hand on the left sideline against debutant Suliasi Vunivalu:
Darcy Swain comprehensively blots out Wilson, Nic White draws Vunivalu to square in on him, Samu dots down in the corner. Nice work, if you can get it.
In the first part of this article looking at Australia’s options at openside flanker, I drew attention to a dysfunction in the Reds back-row when Fraser McReight and Liam Wright were not playing on the flanks together. Saturday night’s encounter showed it is still quite easy to draw this look, simply by shifting the ball across the field:
McReight is closest to the ruck, ready to contest, but all of the Reds’ back-rowers are within ten metres of each other on the same side of the breakdown. Where will the ball go next? That’s right – out to Samu on the right edge.
The Brumbies have the numbers, but can’t make it work on this occasion. They can still come back to another strong run by Valetini the following phase:
There was still time for the plan to be repeated one last time in the 71st minute:
With McReight buried in the ruck, and both Scott-Young and Wilson on the narrow side of the field, there is only one place the next two phases are going: first short to Valetini, then wide right to Samu for the scoring assist to Issak Fines-Leleiwasa:
While it would be wrong to suggest that the Reds back-row did not get in a few heavy punches of their own – most notably in the build-up to their first try – it was their Brumby counterparts who scored a clear points victory in the tactical battle overall.
Everyone in the Canberra unit has a clear role to play: Rob Valetini does the heavy-duty ball-carrying and authors the hits on defence; Pete Samu wins lineout and is a potent attacking force out wide, Tom Cusack contests the breakdown and links play.
The roles in the Queensland back row are not as well-defined, at least not without Liam Wright in the side. Especially on defence, all three players tend to follow the ball and get caught in the same area far too often for comfort. There is a slight but significant overlap in the roles of Harry Wilson and Angus Scott-Young, and the balance is off.
Brad Thorn was right to be underwhelmed in his post-match interview, not so much by the result as the patchy performance. The Reds are winning, but they still do not know their best midfield combination, where to start Jordan Petaia, or how best to compensate for the injury absence of their captain.
Dan McKellar will be happy in the knowledge his team would probably have won the game with something to spare had Scott Sio and Tom Ross been able to stay on the field for the full 80, or James Slipper and Alla Alaalatoa been available for selection. Without them, his scrum collapsed.
The Brumbies and the Reds are likely to cross swords at least twice more in 2021. In the meantime, it seems only right to relish one bright Saturday evening when, for once in recent times, it was happiness all around.