Maybe it’s the pre-final build-up affecting my thinking, or maybe it was the lack of key standout moments from the Brumbies’ qualifying final win over the Western Force, but I find myself searching awfully hard for one clear narrative with which to just dive at the keyboard this week.
It happens from time to time. Rugby can’t always be about highlight-reel moments.
And that’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy the qualifying final. It was exactly the kind of gripping, grinding, hard-fought game a sudden-death match should be. The Force were always going to be up for it, and my pre-game guess of a ten-point margin proved pretty close to the mark.
But despite contributing to the narrative with a couple of press conference questions on this theme on Saturday night, it took a good 36 hours before it became this week’s obvious topic.
This was a match that coaches would love: a final result achieved not because of a piece of individual brilliance or one key moment, but because of a series of events coming from a collective group of individuals doing their job for the team.
With a number of injuries during the 21-9 win over the Force, Brumbies coach Dan McKellar touched on this team-first mantra that he has worked incredibly hard to build during his time as head coach.
“We don’t rely heavily on individuals as a group,” he said post-match, pleased that his side had been able to outwit, outplay, and outlast the Western Australians.
“We’ve got a system in place, and we’ll just ask someone to step up and play their role within the system.”
Rob Valetini is one such individual for the Brumbies. He is a young guy who has already made huge strides this season and will play an even bigger role in Saturday’s final if the Brumbies are to claim a fourth Super Rugby title.
Valetini was enormous on Saturday night, making 68 metres from his 13 carries, and beating seven defenders along the way. He threw the pass for Tom Wright’s try just before halftime, too.
“As an individual, I just feel like he’s matured. He’s grown up a lot, Robbie.
“He’s always had that potential, but… I remember having a conversation with Dave Rennie about him in the past, and he’s a genuine world-class player. That is, he had the potential to be.
“Now we’re starting to see that week in, week out. He’s got a leadership role within our group around defence, which he’s really owned. He’s got more of a voice within the group now, as does Len Ikitau, and he’s thriving off the back of that.
“I’ve said it before, it comes off the back of his consistent training and preparation day in and day out, and yeah, I’m just really happy, and proud of him, to be honest.”
I’m sure he’s done it before, but I can’t recall McKellar openly and expansively praising a player like this in some time.
And it’s entirely warranted. In a pack that has endured a shocking run of injury that still shows no sign of easing, Valetini and lock Cadeyrn Neville have been the constants across all nine games in 2021. If they’re not the two best Brumbies this year, they’re absolutely two of the top three. I think they’re it, and by some margin.
With Pete Samu in some serious doubt, along with Folau Fainga’a and James Slipper too, the Brumbies’ back-row impact is going to have to come from Valetini.
But he’s shown himself to be up for that challenge. In fact, he’d only just moved back to the side of the scrum for the qualifying final, having played number eight in Samu’s injury-enforced absence against the Rebels down in Melbourne in Round 9.
And while James Tucker and Tom Cusack are both long odds of being fit for the final, there is some confidence within the Brumbies that Will Miller might be right to take on Queensland in Brisbane. That could open up a move for young David Pocock clone Rory Scott to switch to the blindside in yet another back-row shuffle.
McKellar agreed with my leading suggestion that shuffling Valetini back to number eight was the obvious solution on Saturday night, if Samu’s prognosis came back as bad as it appeared at the time.
“Yeah, and I think if you ask Rob, he’d say his preferred position probably was eight,” the coach offered.
“It gives him opportunity off the back of a good scrum as well, so yeah, he’ll cover that role without any issue if he’s selected there, and if (Samu) is not right. But we’ll hope for some good news around a couple of sore bodies there.”
The Brumbies’ system has been tested considerably more in 2021 than in recent seasons, but the emergence of Scott and a promising debut from Luke Reimer on the weekend shows the system is working very well.
Having used 34 players already this season, it’s no wonder McKellar was quite deliberate in where a win this weekend would rank in terms of the Brumbies’ previous Super Rugby titles.
“Oh, it’d be enormous, yeah,” he said.
“We’d enjoy this more than last year, without a doubt. Just because we’ve got a lot of respect for the opposition, and we understand the challenge that is ahead of us.
“Yeah, it’d be incredibly rewarding to the group and the players and staff. We’ll focus on that now. We’ll recover and review, and prepare well, and put in place some tactics to go up there and get the job done.”