I don’t know Chiefs coach Clayton McMillan at all, and I certainly can’t say if he’s a Kenny Rogers fan. I know Brumbies coach Stephen Larkham a lot better, and though I can imagine it has played a part in many a celebration for him, I still couldn’t suggest with any confidence ‘The Gambler’ is on his playlist.
And I’m sorry in advance for the ear worm that this old classic may have already become for you. But it’s been in my head since Sunday…
You got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em
Know when to walk away and know when to run
You never count your money when you’re sittin’ at the table
There’ll be time enough for countin’ when the dealing’s done
But this isn’t to suggest that finals rugby is about only gambling; if anything, it’s quite the opposite.
Knowing when to play, knowing when not to play and let the opposition make the mistake.
The Brumbies will head to Hamilton to face the Chiefs in Saturday night’s second Super Rugby Pacific semi-final, and both teams won through after finding themselves behind at different points during their respective quarter-finals.
Indeed, the Queensland Reds have given the Brumbies a decent blueprint on how the tackle the runaway competition leaders, and already there’s a feeling that the Brumbies will be given more hope to win this game than seemed the case late last week before they hosted the Hurricanes.
And within that, it was interesting to see a bit of criticism handed Damian McKenzie’s way, seemingly for not being able to spark his team into action in the face of a Queensland side that was more than willing to put the Chiefs forwards, especially, under pressure. What McKenzie was supposed to do exactly, was unclear in the criticisms.
The Chiefs had plenty of success in the first half controlling field position, with McKenzie and Shaun Stevenson’s kicking game delivering territorial net win after net win. Try as the Reds might, their kicking game simply didn’t have the same length. That they started aiming for 50-22 kicks was telling.
And it was no surprise that the Chiefs kicked three penalties before half-time and another to start things after the break, either. For one thing, it’s finals football, you take points wherever you can get them.
But for another thing, the Chiefs have been kicking penalties all year. They’d kicked more than the other top-four teams going into the playoffs – significantly more than the Brumbies and Crusaders – and in fact, had taken the most penalty goal attempts of any team in the competition this year.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but the Chiefs kick the ball a lot. Damian McKenzie has kicked from the tee more than any other player in 2023, and with 20 kicks from hand on Saturday, I suspect he leads that tally, too.
But what the Chiefs don’t do a lot is kick for the line, keeping the ball in play more often than not and not setting a lot of lineouts relative to the other teams. They often throw into fewer than 10 lineouts a game, and their overall lineout success rate ranks them in the bottom half of the competition.
And given the Brumbies boast the best lineout success rate of the remaining teams – despite throwing worries that have carried throughout the season – it’s not hard to see an ACT game plan built around set piece. They recorded mauls won from more than half their successful lineouts, too, with Luke Reimer’s lineout drive try in the 64th minute to get them back into the contest after conceding the lead their first maul try since Round 11.
The Brumbies similarly took an at times pragmatic approach on Saturday night, Jack Debreczeni kicking two penalties before half-time to extend the lead at the time to 9.
These were the first penalties they’ve lined up in a month, and the first time they’ve kicked more than one in a game since Noah Lolesio kicked three from four against Queensland in Round 3.
You got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em…
Debreczeni, Man of the Match in the QF win, presents a decent selection headache for Larkham and the Brumbies, too, with his extra length with the boot a very useful asset to start a semi-final with.
There will be times the Brumbies will need to gamble, just as there will be times the Chiefs roll the dice, too.
The likely return of Corey Toole on the left edge will be part of that, with the Brumbies’ big improvement this season being their turnover and counterattack, and as touched on last week, their much improved ability to find and play to broken field opportunities.
Shaun Stevenson’s 11 remains equal atop the try-scoring tally this season, and Toole’s nine isn’t far behind.
It’s going to be a fascinating contest, however it plays out. The Brumbies beat the Chiefs in Hamilton by 10 just over 12 months ago, so they’ll have a sense of recency in their minds as well.
Both the Chiefs and Brumbies love to attack and they love to play open rugby – but they also know the value of pragmatism, and know, well …when to fold ‘em.
It’s knock-out rugby and both teams are 80 minutes and change away from another Super Rugby Final.
Saturday night’s semi won’t be won by knowing when to gamble, but instead by knowing when not to.