Even for home viewers, there was a palpable sense of Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium bristling with excitement right throughout Saturday’s Super Rugby final, before things reached a crescendo when James O’Connor sealed a thrilling, 85th minute, 19-16 title win to the Reds.
It’s one of the oldest cliches in the book, but rugby – more specifically Australian rugby – was the winner.
With the final shown on Nine’s main free-to-air channel – albeit squeezed in-between a hefty advertising schedule – and almost 42,000 animated fans in the house, only the most uncharitable could insist that Australian rugby is not in the midst of turning away from recent lows.
Some of that is down to luck, with the pandemic forcing a domestic Super Rugby solution that guarantees a local winner, and which this season, has provided a string of highly competitive matches.
Some is also down to good management. With the relationship with long-time broadcast partner Fox Sports having run its course, new partner Nine/Stan has brought increased enthusiasm for the game and greater reach. If viewers never actually got to see the final ball released to O’Connor and see him straighten and dive for glory, that’s only a minor blip to what has been a hugely successful season, so far.
There is a sense in the rugby community that the focus is back on the game itself, and that while the challenges facing administrators remain formidable – a $27m loss for the 2020 financial year and more to come in the current year – that these can be overcome with a more united, disciplined approach, within a more settled environment.
Long-awaited constitutional and structural change is imminent, which is anticipated will create distinct functional committees to run Super Rugby and the community game which aren’t dependent upon or subject to, state-based voting blocs.
Expect to hear more on this in coming weeks, as negotiations continue with prospective Private Equity partners, who naturally, seek the certainty that Rugby Australia has its own house in order, and the surety that their investment cannot be held hostage to the whims of a few grumpy ex-captains.
The second, and obvious big winner, was the Reds. Under head coach Brad Thorn, Reds fans endured 2018 and 2019 finishing bottom of the four Australian franchises.
While results were slow to come, and criticisms were often pointed and vocal, there were two constants throughout this period – not unrelated.
Thorn insisted that it was his way or the highway. It is rare that any single coach is the complete package, and in Thorn’s case, even after this win, nobody will be acclaiming him as a tactical or technical genius.
But Thorn’s strengths in identifying the type of character he wanted his team to exhibit, and the individual qualities required in his players to suit that, and to stubbornly reject criticisms about the manner in which some players were shunned, have held him in good stead.
Whether it was demanded by the board or not, by accepting the respected Jim McKay into the seat alongside him, Thorn understood how the two men’s strengths complimented each other, for the betterment of the franchise.
The other characteristic of his tenure is that even on some of the low days, his teams were very rarely beaten up. There was something in his developing side that consistently saw them fight back after poor starts, or put in long stretches of committed defence, despite being outmanned.
The results weren’t there, but that character became increasingly more evident last year; notably in a Round 7 match against the Rebels, where the side visibly grew taller as a result of a superb defensive effort.
Do not discount how much what on the surface, might look like a scratchy or lucky win, feeds into a huge dividend a year later, in a final.
That is exactly the reason why the Reds, who on Saturday were never in command of their own game, let alone in command of the Brumbies, were able to hang tough, fight through their own deficiencies, and ultimately snatch victory.
Two previous matches this season against the Brumbies had been claimed at the death, because of the Reds’ scrum dominance. Again this time, their scrum delivered a string of penalties that ensured field position, particularly during a tense second half.
But this time around, the scrum barely papered over major issues with their lineout – half a dozen throws lost – the collective failure of backs and forwards to punch through the gain line, and a confused, largely ineffective kicking game.
A perfect example of this was provided in the 66th minute, after the Reds had clawed the score back to 12-13, when O’Connor, who had lacked distance off his left foot all night, swung awkwardly onto his right, and inexplicably put up a high, cross-field kick that barely cleared the 22.
It was poor exit strategy and execution, which was deservedly punished by the Brumbies, who quickly restored the lead back to four points.
It meant that in the final stanza, the Reds needed to score a try to win; something that despite coming close through a ‘timed out’ Feao Fotuaika, and a lunging Jordan Petaia, they hadn’t managed to do all game.
In the end, the Brumbies, in panic mode, twice had their wings clipped by referee Nic Berry, and while the Reds could never be accused of finishing matters off clinically or with composure, they simply had too much momentum to be denied.
Which brings us to the third winner. Despite the loss, and despite his side’s ill-discipline under pressure at the end, Brumbies’ coach Dan McKellar emerged from this final with his reputation well and truly intact.
From the first whistle, the Brumbies – far from full strength – showed impressive clarity in their game plan and execution. It was the intent and speed of their recycle that troubled the Reds, and opened up the hole that allowed Noah Lolesio to put Tom Banks in for a great opening try.
Defensively too, they were very well organised, ready and waiting for the Reds’ switch plays that have served them well this year.
Finals are often messy, emotional affairs, where much of what has been ingrained into sides over seasons and in the lead-up, flies out the window under the pressure and heat of a finals cauldron.
But for almost 80 minutes, the Brumbies managed to retain their shape and their identity, and that is clearly the sign of a coach who not only has firm control over his playing group, but has players willing to die for the cause.
Yes, they lost, and McKellar will be hurting, but he and his coaching team and senior players, can be satisfied that they did all within their power to win the title.
Over in Christchurch, the impressive Crusaders took their record of success in home finals to a neat 24 from 24, including six grand finals.
As in Australia there was no shortage of intensity, although fans saw more of the pace and expressive ball movement that everyone has come to expect from New Zealand franchises.
In the end, the difference was familiarity; with the big occasion and big moments, and the Crusaders’ ability to change gears midway through the second half, when the game demanded it.
Chiefs assistant coach David Hill was interviewed just after the home side were reduced to 13 men, where Hill spoke about how his boys would “have a lick” to take full advantage of their numerical superiority.
Unfortunately for Hill, on-field actions didn’t match his words. The first thing they did with a two-man advantage was kick at goal from an attacking penalty, then from the kick-off receipt, Anton Leinert-Brown, who had the option to spark something, cleared for touch.
Soon after, Damian McKenzie kicked more ball away, before Richie Mo’unga brilliantly burned them on the counter, before finishing off the move with his first ever drop-goal in Super Rugby.
These things not only provided the Crusaders an opportunity to run down the clock, it shifted the Chiefs out of the mindset that they needed to be bold and keep taking the game to the opposition. Even with two men extra, nobody should go to Christchurch and expect matters to take care of themselves.
Like the Highlanders did this year and the Hurricanes last year, to beat the Crusaders at home you have to play with unbridled self-belief for 80 minutes, and actually win the match, as opposed to expecting the Crusaders to lose it.
The Chiefs shouldn’t feel too down on themselves, however. They were everyone’s popular pick for last at the beginning of the season, and a wee bit of stage fright at a vital and unfamiliar time is excusable.
Despite a dusty day off the tee, Damian McKenzie has been wonderful all year, Tupou Vai’i has validated his All Blacks’ selection, and when a player like Alex Nankerville demonstrates the presence of mind and skill to set up McKenzie like he did for his first half try, it’s easy to believe there is more improvement coming.
The Crusaders meanwhile, keep replacing quality with quality; prop George Bower the latest to fill big shoes with ease. The addition of Pablo Matera for next season almost feels like a joke.
Meanwhile, last week saw the Waratahs launch the dreaded ‘worldwide search’ for a new coach, with CEO Paul Doorn’s press release outlining how; “The coach of the NSW Waratahs is one of the highest profile roles in Australian rugby and, as you would expect, we have had a great deal of interest in the role already.”
“We are open about whether the coach is from NSW, Australia or from overseas, but what the successful candidate must do, is understand and embrace what the NSWRU is looking to achieve.”
“The Head Coach must be aligned with our strategic priorities and share a clear vision of what success looks like in the years ahead,” said Doorn.
Seriously. Perhaps the successful candidate, once appointed, and once they understand and embrace what it is the NSWRU is looking to achieve, might be kind enough to let the board know?
Aside from cash, one of the attractions of private equity into rugby is to add expertise in areas of the business of professional rugby that traditional rugby administrators aren’t sufficiently qualified or connected.
This is one area however, where old-fashioned rugby values don’t need to be set aside.
Instead of paying a global head-hunting firm to manage a short-list of candidates through a convoluted process of corporate doublespeak, why wouldn’t the Waratah’s chairman and CEO be confident in their own diligence, and spend a few hours over coffee and a beer, getting to know what makes their prospective coaches tick?
One can only imagine how early Brad Thorn would have been deleted from contention by a global head-hunter. Now, he’s a Super Rugby championship winning coach.
If there’s a market drawn up on which comes earlier – the standing aside of chairman Roger Davis or the appointment of the new Waratahs’ head coach, the smart money, right now, would have to be on Davis.