In the end, justice was done – probably. The Queensland Reds were the best team in Super Rugby AU over the course of the season, winning seven of their eight pre-final games and edging their closest rivals on all of the three occasions they played.
At the post-match press conference on Saturday night, Brumbies head coach Dan McKellar looked pale, struggling to disguise his anger at some of the refereeing decisions behind a thin mask of propriety.
“I’m shattered, gutted. Incredibly proud, but there’s not a lot to say,” he said.
“It’s heart-breaking. I couldn’t be prouder of the boys that wore a Brumbies jersey tonight, I thought they were brilliant. We came here, with backs to the wall, a lot of injuries out of last week. We’re shattered.”
Prompted on his side’s three yellow cards – two of them in the final three minutes of normal time – he replied pointedly.
“Just as long as everyone is accountable for their performances out there tonight. I know the players are and the coaches are. That’s my only hope.”
There are no prizes for identifying who else McKellar was referring to with “everyone”.
“Thirteen blokes, in the end it just became incredibly tough for us to hold them out, the boys were exhausted. Yeah, it’s an interesting game to watch.”
Later, McKellar praised the Reds.
“They hung in there. I congratulate Queensland, and I congratulate the Queensland people… it was a great night for Australian rugby. A really good night. It’s a great story,” he said.
We’re just disappointed. People have got to understand we’re shattered. We’re not blaming anyone, we’re really proud of our group, really grateful for the supporters that spent their hard-earned cash to come up here and make it a really special event. And as I said, I take my hat off to the Reds’ supporters, they have a good young side here, they’ve got behind them and created a memory which will be spoken about for a long time to come.”
It was a fair summary. The maul penalty in the 78th minute which led to Darcy Swain’s dismissal was especially murky:
In defensive terms, Swain has done everything his coaches would have wanted. He starts in the middle of the maul and swims his way onto the ball-carrier (replacement hooker Alex Mafi), and that is quite legal.
With Mafi locked up, it is unclear whether it is Swain who takes the maul to ground, or rather the sudden surge of momentum generated by the entry of three Queensland backs at the end of the drive.
Penalty? Maybe. Yellow card with no prior warnings? Harsh.
What drives coaches wild is refereeing inconsistency. Although Nic Berry rewarded the Reds’ advantage at the scrum with a 6-1 penalty count in their favour, he did not show assurance in policing Taniela Tupou’s use of the angle into Brumbies hooker Lachlan Lonergan.
Sometimes he rewarded it.
On one occasion, he decided to penalise it:
Readers are invited to spot which penalty is which, from two of the screenshots:
Knockout matches are invariably played out closer to the set-piece than regular-season games, and the Reds’ control of the scrum just about outweighed the collapse of their lineout.
With the finish of the two domestic Super Rugby competitions tripping over the heels of the start of the Trans-Tasman tournament this weekend, there is precious little time for the Reds to repair some yawning deficiencies at lineout time. Queensland pay a Friday evening visit to Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin to play the Highlanders, so it is a short turnaround indeed.
Of their 19 lineout throws, the Reds won ten cleanly and lost six, and a further three were spoiled. The lineout is one of Jim McKay’s most potent platforms for attacking play, but his backline never looked remotely ready to launch off those numbers.
As I suggested after the game against the Force, the Queensland lineout is an easy read when it is placed under the microscope by astute set-piece minds. This is entirely understandable, given that it is Angus Scott-Young’s debut season calling the shots.
The Brumbies started by taking away the straightforward ‘walk-in’ option, with the throw called to a predetermined spot before set-up:
There is no overcall at the line, so it becomes a straight jumping contest between Ryan Smith and Darcy Swain, which Swain wins:
In order to avoid that kind of outcome, a lineout caller has to use some movement up and down the line to draw the defence away from the intended target area. That, in turn, makes life more difficult for the hooker, who has to time his delivery to the right zone more precisely.
The Brumbies focused on taking away the Queensland’s two primary regular-season targets – Lukhan Salakaia-Loto (36 wins) and Scott-Young himself (17):
Scott-Young in particular does not have great hangtime in the air, so the window of opportunity for the thrower is narrow indeed.
Under pressure, the Queensland receivers tend to jump right across the centre of the line, and that also creates problems for the lifters and the ‘+1’ in the halfback spot:
In the first example, Salakaia-Loto sails right across a plumb-line down the middle to collect the ball, losing the support of his boosters in the process:
This creates a disconnect with Fraser McReight at halfback, and the result is a knock-on as Lukhan tries to hand off to his flanker.
In the second instance, the lift on Scott-Young is off-centre and unstable, again creating a gap between the receiver and his halfback. Swain is able to get a paw on the ball and swipe it away:
The Reds tried to introduce a new factor by throwing to Ryan Smith, who had hardly been used as a target in the regular season – he only made one receipt – but that gave rise to a whole new set of issues:
With a new receiver involved, there is more uncertainty about the speed and angle of delivery for the scrumhalf – there is a question mark over where to stand. Queensland number nine Tate McDermott takes the ball behind him and the whole attacking backline has to drop five metres to adjust. That gives the first midfield ball-carrier no chance of reaching the advantage line.
It hamstrings the attempts to rehearse the kind of two-phase Jim McKay package the Reds executed so accurately earlier in the regular season. Against the Waratahs in Round 1, for example, Queensland uncorked a superb short-side attack.
On the second, scoring phase against the Tahs, right wing Jordan Petaia received the ball level with the first ruck at full tilt, so the defence is under immediate pressure:
When the Reds essayed exactly the same move in the final, the delivery from Smith threw all of the timings off:
With the ball off the top looping over McDermott’s right shoulder, the backline again has to drop a couple of steps and the ball-carrier has no chance of reaching the gain-line. This time, Petaia receives the ball standing still, ten metres behind the first ruck, and the chance of penetration has gone:
After all that has happened in the past 16 months, it was a great night for Australian rugby, and for Queensland rugby in particular. 42,000 supporters crammed into Suncorp Stadium to watch an unbearably tense finale, and that was a triumph in itself.
It was a tribute to the efforts the Reds have made to reconnect with their history and grassroots. They have been the best team over the whole course of Super Rugby AU, and they thoroughly deserved their victory.
On the field, the Brumbies again looked the more likely winners until the final moments of the contest. They found themselves on the butt end of the penalty count (20-8 in favour of the Reds) and the yellow cards (3-0), and it is hard to overcome those disadvantages. Two of those cards were open to question.
The litmus test of where Australian rugby stands in relation to the rest of the world will come over the next couple of months, with the Trans-Tasman tournament and an international tour by France climbing over the horizon.
The straight story is that for Australia’s champion provincial team, the scrum will be good but the lineout will come under pressure. Without lineout ball, the Queensland backs cannot play.
A major rethink in the back five forwards will be necessary to succeed against the Kiwis, one that will raise questions about the value of both club captain Liam Wright, and their most promising young forward, Seru Uru, to the team.
In this condensed season, teams are moving past championships quicker than ever before. In only two more days, the Reds will face the Highlanders in Dunedin, and it will be the supporters of the ‘Clan’ baying under a glass roof. Queensland needs to hear a strong echo of its Super Rugby AU success in order for the delirium of those final seconds at Suncorp to be fully believed.