A fullback started and finished a counter-attacking try this weekend, a wonderful piece of play that started just in front of his own goal posts and finished in the left corner more than 90 metres away.
But this wasn’t a Damian McKenzie special for the Chiefs, or even the well underrated Josh Moorby from the Hurricanes. It was an Australian fullback, Tom Wright from the ACT Brumbies, scoring their first try of the second half on Friday night, their third of the night, and probably the five-pointer that confirmed the Brumbies were going to win a game they pretty much always had in hand.
It all started from a Carter Gordon pass, with the Melbourne Rebels deep on attack inside the Brumbies’ 22, but the pass was too far in front of replacement back Tom Pincus, who in trying to reel the ball in, only succeeded in knocking the ball forward.
Wright, defending on the far left but a step or two back from the front line, watched the ball come loose and immediately sprinted forward to collect the ball as it bounced beautifully straight into his hands.
By the time he reached the 22, he was already in clear air. He veered toward the touchline trying to get away from the chasing Gordon, who had done superbly to get back and lead the chase. Wright only started looking inside for support as he reached halfway, finding team-mate Corey Toole but with Rebels flyer Monty Ioane running the blocking line.
Wright was able to pop a one-handed basketball-style pass overhead to Toole, who found another gear to head back infield and link up with Jack Debreczeni. The flyhalf immediately stepped off his right to head back toward the touchline, knowing that Wright is still alive and in space.
He finds Len Ikitau, running straight down the 15-metre tram track and powering into the Rebels 22. Points are very much on offer, as Wright comes back inside in support and inside centre Ollie Sapsford arrives out on the touch line.
Toole is still alive on the inside too, and the support runners are now all looking for the space to get to Ikitau as he’s brought to ground by Gordon and opposite winger Lachie Anderson.
The ball is flung upward and backward by Ikitau, over the head of Sapsford, but into the path of Wright and replacement hooker Billy Pollard, who’s arrived on the scene as well. Pollard slightly overruns the ball, allowing another sweet bounce up into the hands of Wright.
Reece Hodge and a number of Rebels defenders have got back, but in making contact with Sapsford, Hodge effectively opens the outside gap for Wright, who dives forward to score and complete the roll in one motion.
With Debreczeni’s conversion from out wide, it’s essentially a 14-point turnaround.
The wider angle replay is revealing, too. At the moment Wright has made a clean break out of a turnover, there are already four Brumbies running after him in support. Well before Wright gets to halfway, Debreczeni is motioning Toole to head back toward the posts, opening up more space among the Rebels defenders.
As Wright dives for the line, there are eight Brumbies players in the Rebels’ 22 in support. It wasn’t a matter of ‘if’ the Brumbies were going to score from the 90-metre movement, but ‘by who’.
This was a very different Brumbies side than what went down to the Western Force and the Chiefs in consecutive weeks. Different personnel-wise, certainly, but a very different approach about the way they looked to convert turnovers into opportunities, and if possible, into points, exactly as they did in this moment.
This is just the one clear example, but it was visible all night – whenever the ACT side found players in space, there was a concerted effort from the ball-carrier to look for and then get to space, and for his teammates to immediately switch from defence to attack and present as a support option.
Watching on from home in COVID isolation, Brumbies senior assistant coach Laurie Fisher noted on social media on Saturday morning that he particularly “enjoyed the Brumbies’ composure, defence quality, kicking game and the skill and adventure on turnover attack.”
When I mentioned in response the noticeable attitude on turnover (“Eyes up immediately, find the space, play to it”), Fisher confirmed the work the side had been doing to bring this aspect of their game back to life.
“Agreed mate. Been showing pictures last few weeks and encouraging players to react and get the ball to space and follow your nose from there,” he replied.
It was the same with Andy Muirhead’s late try to restore the bonus point. The Rebels shelled another pass, Sapsford caught the rebound and immediately found space with support runners trailing from the outset, tied his offload to find Debreczeni, who went to ground in collecting the ball but still found Ryan Lonergan, who found Muirhead on his outside. Right foot step on Ioane, and Muirhead was away.
The telling picture was that at the point Sapsford got the pass away to Debreczeni, there were four Brumbies in support. Again, not ‘if’ they would score, but ‘who’.
It’s a really small change – and a purely mental tweak – but one that adds new degree of danger to the Brumbies’ game heading into the playoffs.
And furthermore, it’s been the difference between them and the other Australian sides throughout this year.
For all the clear improvements the Rebels have made to their game this season, and for all the excellent seasons a surprising number of their players enjoyed in 2023, it’s hard to maintain the “they’re a better team than their ladder position shows” argument when they finished one position lower than in 2022.
They did play better rugby this year, often significantly better, but their inability to make the playoffs again remains an accurate reflection of a squad not quite ready to take the next step. Sometimes this season they’ve even lifted the foot and began to take that step, only to not finish it off and lose games they should have won.
The same applies to the Western Force, too. They had a chance to prove they had grown as a squad, but once the Chiefs led 19-0 after 21 minutes on Saturday, that chance was gone. Like the Rebels, they got stage fright when they really needed to know they could play with confidence.
Both look ready to have better seasons in 2024, and both have added some really important talent in really important positions. But it also feels like we’ve said this before, about both teams in recent years. Next year that foot has to land. They can’t be coming down with stage fright in Round 15 for a third straight season.
And on that note, I can only agree with Geoff Parkes’ point yesterday: it’s a huge disappointment that Kevin Foote and Simon Cron can’t run their sides out again for competition points for another nine months.
The five states desperately need to keep playing in the second half of the year. Maybe a restoration of full funding levels in the forthcoming financial year might be the catalyst for this desperately needed rugby development.