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What lessons must Australia's Super Rugby sides learn for next season?

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13th June, 2022
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With the Brumbies’ Super Rugby Pacific campaign coming to an end in the last four, and the naming of the Wallabies squad a good way of distracting Australian attention from the final this week, the time had come to wrap up some spreadsheet data and take one last glance at anything wanting to stand out.

And here was the one about the Brumbies that I’d been keeping an eye on since about halfway through the season.

Up to Round 12, with their record sitting at 10 wins and one loss and running second on the table behind the Blues, there was a common denominator in all eleven games played to that point.

They led at halftime in every one of those eleven games.

There wasn’t really a pattern to their leading though; there were big margins, there were narrow and even one-point margins, there were low-scoring first halves, and high-scoring first halves. They scored 17 first half points in four games, 16 in one, and 18 in another.

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But they led all eleven games one way or another, and the only loss in the set was when they led the Queensland Reds 7-6 at the break and didn’t score a second half point.

Then, from Round 13 all the way through the semi-final loss to the Blues at Eden Park on Saturday night, they trailed at half-time every time in their last five games.

It’s like a switch was flicked. They were really good at controlling first halves, and then they suddenly weren’t. And you can’t even align it with COVID-forced Australian and trans-Tasman demarcation of games in the draw either.

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The last three of those initial ten wins came against the Highlanders, Hurricanes, and Chiefs, and the Brumbies led them all going into the second half.

And it reminded me of something I heard the captain of a New Zealand side in a press conference after beating the Brumbies in a final.

“The type of team the Brumbies are, if they get a lead, they can really strangle the game,” the Kiwi captain said.

“Whereas we thought that if we could get points on the board and they had to chase the game, that it could work in our favour as they try to play a game that they probably don’t like to play as much.

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“I thought we defended very well. We just didn’t give them a lot of opportunity. They’re a team who like to get a lot of territory and put you under pressure, but we got out of exits zones really well.

“I felt like we were always able to take the initiative.”

It could easily have been Blues stand-in skipper Beauden Barrett after Saturday night’s semi, but it wasn’t. It wasn’t even Scott Barrett after the Crusaders beat the Brumbies in Canberra in Round 13.

It was Hurricanes captain Conrad Smith. After the 2015 semi-final in Wellington.

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Smith’s response has always lingered in the back of my memory because I asked the question of him on the night, but it raced back to front of consciousness listening to Blues players and coaches before, during and after the semi-final saying much the same thing.

Folau Fainga'a of the Brumbies celebrates with his team mates after scoring a try.

Folau Fainga’a of the Brumbies celebrates with his team mates after scoring a try. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

As much as the Brumbies felt they had the game to push the Blues all the way – which they very obviously did – the Blues were again conscious of getting out early and making the Brumbies chase the game. It worked well in Round 14, and it worked well again in the knockout situation.

Of course, preferring to run from the front is a trait hardly limited to the Brumbies, and nor are they the only team in the professional game to has trouble chasing down a score when put on the back foot. But it’s certainly interesting that a seven-year old semi-final game plan came to light again on the weekend.

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There will be numerous moments in the semi-final loss that haunt the Brumbies over the off-season, but the half-time lead factoid and specifically finding a way to come from behind needs to be a project for incoming coach Stephen Larkham and the playing group for the next few months.

And there’s going to be a few off-season projects, looking around the states.

The Waratahs did a lot right in 2022. More right than most – including themselves, by their own admissions – expected, such was the low base of 2021 that they started this season from.

But when push came to shove, particularly in those couple of late season losses to New Zealand side, they just seemed a little light on in the composure department in the big moments.

Those close losses to the Hurricanes and Blues at home both contained little moments they’ve love to have again, and even the quarter-final against the Chiefs would have as well.

That said, they were certainly a lot better at closing out games and finishing opportunities in the back-half of the season than the start of the year, which shows the growth in the team as a whole.

Mark Nawaqanitawase of the Waratahs scores a try.

(Photo by Pete Dovgan/Speed Media/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

They also got some crucial experience into some young and really promising players, which will only help in 2023. Of course, they’ll also have to deal with vastly increased expectation in 2023, too.

Depth is going to be top of the list for the Reds, and though they showed themselves to be healthily stocked in certain positions, the injury-enforced losses of Taniela Tupou and James O’Connor exposed massive gaps in both depth and game plan.

They used upwards of half a dozen hookers out of necessity and that may help in time, but their single point of playmaking and scrum as a platform plans all fell apart when Tupou and O’Connor were ruled out. Six losses in their last seven games sheeted this home.

The extra challenge next season will also involve rebuilding depth in previously strong areas, with the departures of Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, Alex Mafi and Angus Scott-Young.

And for the Melbourne Rebels and Western Force, I think you can sum up their off-season project thusly: they need to find ways of playing more rugby, for longer.

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Both sides averaged at or just less than three tries per game in 2022, and that’s a problem when you’re conceding four-and-a-half per game at the other end. And both sides have plenty of guys who can finish opportunities, it’s just that there weren’t enough created up through the middle in the first place.

A new coach will bring new ideas for the Force, which may put more heat on the Rebels to show improvements, though their last five games might provide something of a blueprint – they averaged more than 27 points per game and scored half their season tally of tries.

Pre-season planning will begin this week, and even with squads for 2023 a long way off being decided, it’s clear that each of our teams will have plenty to work on for the remainder of the year.

Weekends off before the end of the season are never ideal, but it would be awfully negligent of our coaches to not put this time to good use.

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