Brumbies flyhalf Noah Lolesio has missed a sideline conversion on the final siren as the Crusaders escaped with a thrilling 31-29 win in Christchurch.
Then there were three. The short finals campaign of Super Rugby AU dawns this weekend.
After a spectacular finish to Round 10, we find the Western Force facing the ACT Brumbies in Canberra, with the winner meeting the QLD Reds at fortress Lang Park the following weekend.
The Force may be the feel-good redemption story of 2021, but that will matter little to the hosting title defenders when they meet on Saturday night.
The Brumbies enter rightful favourites, going down only twice in the season, and that was respectfully to the competition front-runners. The club’s game strategy and clinical set-piece play is a work of complete admiration. Forget notions of entertaining running rugby, the greatest form of entertainment for a fan base is simple, their club winning regularly and convincingly, something the Brumbies have mastered.
While there is great anticipation for the trans-Tasman competition and stern eagerness to see how our local heavyweights in the Reds and the Brumbies stack up against their New Zealand counterparts. There is a swelling contrary belief that the Force can make it to Lang Park and provide Super Rugby AU with the unfathomable outcome.
Both teams have an enviable balance of experienced and youthful players. With the Brumbies likely to once again provide the backbone of Wallaby Test caps in 2021, while the Force are led by a group of highly experienced national and international players.
The Brumbies are potentially the most effective club at exploiting any opponent’s ill-discipline. Any midfield penalty is predictably followed by a Tom Banks kick to corner, line-out, rolling maul and five points. However on defence they are far less than perfect, and we have seen the Reds this season place themselves in winning positions because of this. Whether it be offside play, high tackles or the grey area of ruck infringements, the Brumbies have a very real problem with discipline when defending in their half.
This is the area that the Force need to exploit, however they are as guilty of this as their opponents. During last weekend’s match we saw the Force continually give away penalties on defence in their half. Tevita Kuridrani played his game of the season, yet within minutes sidelined himself from the finals. Compounding this, continued infringements while defending in the 22 produced yellow cards resulting in the Force playing 30 minutes of the match with only 14 men.
Can they topple the Brumbies in Canberra under those same conditions? On the other hand, can the Brumbies strangle the Force without addressing their own poor discipline?
Tim Sampson’s time coaching the NRC club the Canberra Vikings may give the Force some technical advantage leading into this match. With selections of Fergus Lee-Warner and Santiago Medrano over crowd favourites Tim Anstee and Greg Holmes, we see some insight as to how the Force may counter their opponents. Along with Sitaleki Timani, the aforementioned may be seen as increased muscle needed to nullify the power of Rob Valetini, Pete Samu and Alan Alaalatoa.
The experience of Kyle Godwin and Richard Kahui will be called upon to blunt the threats of Canberra’s young gun, Noah Lolesio, Irae Simone and Len Ikitau. Similarly, Domingo Miotti’s kicking will be crucial to the Force’s hopes. Exit kicks will need to cross in the opposition’s half and three points need to be taken when available. On attack Miotti’s communication with fellow countryman Tomas Cubelli will need to be perfect as the Brumbies centres will look to shut down backline plays well behind the advantage line.
Ultimately this match is likely to be decided by the team who can defend and exit from their half without drawing the negative attention of the match officials. If the Brumbies are gifted penalties in the attacking half, the consequences will be too great for the Force to overcome. However if the Force can win the battle for territory, we may see an even contest with the West Australians extending their eastern seaboard conquest.
Regardless of the sport, semi-finals have a habit of producing ‘game of the season’ spectacles. This Saturday is shaping up as nothing less.