They’ve made it hard for themselves now, the ACT Brumbies.
What only a few weeks ago looked like a fairly likely top two finish is now suddenly under a bit of pressure to ensure a top four finish, and back to back losses has killed off their home semi-final ambitions quick smart.
A win over the Melbourne Rebels in Canberra on Friday night will lock down a home Quarter-Final, but the Blues-Highlanders game in Auckland beforehand will determine whether they can finish third or remain in fourth spot.
Lose a third straight game, and their destiny then lays in the hands of the currently fifth-placed Hurricanes, who the Brumbies will play in a quarter-final regardless of whether they finish fourth or fifth. The only variable would be whether a flight to Wellington is required or not.
And if this sounds vaguely familiar to Brumbies fans, it’s because we’re in identical territory to this time last season. Having lost to the Crusaders and Blues, the Brumbies needed only to beat bottom-placed Moana Pasifika to secure third spot.
They lost a third straight game, finish fourth, and in a home quarter-final hosted… the Hurricanes.
So at least they’ll have familiarity with the situation. The question is what they learned from it last year.
Regardless of 2022, and regardless even of how they got back into this same pickle in 2023, their form lines and performances this season have been a curious study.
On the surface, they’ve played pretty well, and the Chiefs loss on Saturday night was their first at home for the year. The first loss at home since those Crusaders and Blues losses last year, in fact.
By their own admission, they’re yet to show a full 80-minute performance. They have won games while not playing at their best, however, the universally accepted measure of a better-than-decent side.
But winning while not playing well, or not playing consistently is still preferable to not playing well and stringing losses together. That’s where they find themselves after the last fortnight.
They’re a different side from last season; that’s also well accepted by now. Their attack has played with a different shape and the evolution of Tom Wright, from quality finisher on the wing to very handy second playmaker at fullback, has been a big reason for this.
The one question mark has been their defence, however.
Last season, they conceded 36 tries up to the finals, the second-fewest of the competition and at an average of just 2.6 tries per game. Their 55 tries scored trailed the four New Zealand sides in the top five, but only the eventual champion Crusaders had a better defensive record.
This year, they’ve scored 61 tries themselves, which is a nice increase, but they’ve also conceded 50, which is definitely not a nice increase. From conceding 2.6 tries per game last season, this season it’s 3.8 per game. You have to go down to the 7th-placed Queensland Reds before you find a worse defensive record in 2023.
They’ve conceded four tries in their last six straight games, and there’s three other games this season in which they conceded five tries. Since their bye in Round 9, they’ve now lost three of their last five games – and have only scored 22 tries themselves to the 20 they’ve conceded.
Their tackle completion rate of 84.5% ranks then seventh for the competition, and is down on last season’s success rate of 86.3%.
Curiously though, they’re making way more tackles per game this season, averaging 179.3 tackles per game compared to the 2022 average of 170.9 tackles per game. Last year they made the second-most tackles per game, and this year it’s the most.
But not only are they making more tackles every week, they’re also missing more – they missed 33 of 168 tackles against the Chiefs, which is as close as doesn’t matter to missing every fifth tackle. Their missed tackle rate is the second-worst in the competition – something they must address if they want to go deep in the finals.
Another is their lineout, which coach Stephen Larkham again lamented. The Brumbies scored 15 of 60-plus tries last season via their deadly lineout drive, but this year it’s down to 12 of 61, and none in the last three games.
“We struggled to deliver good ball again there tonight, without that platform sometimes it’s difficult for us to get on to a bit of a roll,” Larkham said post-match.
All their hookers have been guilty of crooked throws and missing targets this season, and teams have also had success picking off the Brumbies’ throw. As a unit, their lineout has just been off.
But they recorded no lineout losses against the Chiefs, and interestingly, had three locks – Nick Frost, Caderyn Neville and Darcy Swain – sitting in the top ten total lineouts won heading into the game. No other side had more than two.
Their 86.6% lineout success is currently ranked fourth – better than the four Kiwi sides in the top five.
So their lineout appears OK on paper, but it’s clearly not providing them the same platform they’ve been used to over the years. How you can turnaround a spluttering maul in a week will be some challenge for Larkham and his staff, but that’s what they must do this week.
They’re both significant areas of adjustment, but areas that simply must be resolved in order to progress though the finals series.
The Brumbies dominated territory and possession against the Chiefs, even asked them to attempt seventy more tackles as they largely stayed out of the breakdown contest. Yet the Chiefs ran away with a game they never really looked like losing, even with three of their four tries coming against the run of play.
It’s been great for Brumbies fans to see their side winning game while not playing their best. What no-one wants now is to start losing games because they’re playing worse.
Canberra, your side needs you!
The one thing the Brumbies cannot control is arguably the thing they work at the hardest: generating a crowd.
This year’s average is about a thousand up on the 2022 figure, but is still far below what a team playing as consistently as the Brumbies have been for so many years deserves. All the things fans say they want – more wins, more tries, more day games – have been delivered in recent years and it hasn’t made a lick of difference.
So Canberra, it’s time to just harden up and go to the rugby. Yes, the stadium is old, and yes it will be cold again this week (though maybe not as cold as last week), but it’s time to just suck it up and give the team a proper crowd.
The Aldi snow sale was a week and a half ago. It’s the perfect chance to test out that new jacket.