Mistakes are going to happen in a rugby game, that’s just a fact of life and an expectation of anyone playing the game. And while you might not be able to stop a mistake happening, the last thing you then want to do is make it worse by following it up with poor options or further mistakes.
That was the Brumbies’ key undoing in Saturday night’s semifinal loss the Chiefs in Hamilton, who had proven until deep into the match that they had the ability to upset the competition leaders.
But it certainly wasn’t a case of ‘everything that could go wrong, did go wrong’, but rather a gradual build-up of things working against them. The Brumbies had plenty of second half momentum until they just kind of didn’t, and from there, the Chiefs really only needed one invitation to finish the job.
Little moments, that in isolation were just little things, but all of a sudden became a much bigger problem. And a lot of it, unfortunately, was of their own doing.
Such as the minutes leading into halftime. Having finally got on the scoreboard in the 34th minute, the Brumbies defensive efforts from their Quarter Final win flowed on for a second week and had already managed to hold the Chiefs’ ball up over the line three times in two minutes as the halftime siren sounded in the background.
I thought as much live, and haven’t changed my mind with subsequent replay viewing, that I think Tom Wright was trying to drill the goal-line dropout into touch, thus making the ball dead, thus forcing an end to the first half. Only he will truly know, of course.
What happened, of course, was that his kick didn’t find the line and instead bounced straight into the hands of Emoni Narawa, the second-leading Chiefs try-scorer, who set sail for the try-line with only Brumbies winger Ollie Sapsford in front of him.
Narawa came back infield to evade Sapsford, initiating contact from Wright and Lachie Lonergan, with Wright’s tackle – desperately wanting to atone for the kick – slipping straight up around the neck and drawing an immediate penalty. They had to survive another half a dozen or so phases of Chiefs pick-and-drive, which only fell apart with a Samipeni Finau knock-on.
With the Brumbies on yellow card warning for the next infringement, the Chiefs took the surprising option of packing a scrum, which needed a reset, and from which Luke Jacobson then lost the ball in contact within touching distance of the line.
Wright’s unforced error compounded by the high tackle had escaped, but it took another three minutes of defence and scrummaging and effort to get there, when perhaps a long drop-out and tackle down near halfway might have seen the Chiefs put the ball into touch themselves.
On 67 minutes, the Brumbies had back-to-back lineouts just short of the Chiefs’ 22 and then only six metres out from the try line. The scoreboard read 9-6.
From the first, the Chiefs were pinged for jumping across the lineout, but Nic Berry blew it up after Brodie Retallick on the ground knocked the ball out of Ryan Lonergan’s hands as he pulled away from the maul. From the second, the Brumbies’ maul split but kept going forward, only for Pita Gus Sowakula to leap over the collapsed maul and again knock the ball from Lonergan’s hand – this time ruled as a Brumbies knock-on.
From the Chiefs scrum, Jacobson took one hit-up from the back, as they readied for the clearing kick, which Lonergan, sensing Cortez Ratima’s positioning for the kick, got himself to the side of the ruck to allow a run at pressuring the kick. And he did pressure the kick – he got a touch on it, meaning the lineout throw outside the Chiefs’ 22 was not the Brumbies’.
From that lineout, the Chiefs played wide before Damien McKenzie drilled a kick into the Brumbies half. Wright fielded it between the ten-metre line and the Brumbies 22, ran it back into contact on halfway and was held up in the tackle. Chiefs turnover.
The Chiefs then won a scrum penalty, played a few phases before losing the ball, with Berry coming back for what became McKenzie’s fifty-plus metre penalty to extend the lead. In two minutes, the Brumbies went from having a massive opportunity to take the lead deep in the attacking red zone, to trailing by six. And this was a real turning of the tide.
It got worse, though. Noah Lolesio then put the restart out on the full.
The Chiefs certainly finished the better side on the night, but it was only around this point in the game that they started to become the better side.
To this point in the second half, the Chiefs really hadn’t played a lot down the Brumbies end, but they were certainly about to. McKenzie made the break that would finish in Retallick’s try moments later.
The Brumbies are a different side to the one that went one ruck non-decision away from winning through to a Final last season, but another semi-final loss this year only underlines how fine the margins are when you get this close to the top steps.
The Chiefs have been the best side all year, and the Crusaders joined them in the 91st and final game of the season by doing very Crusaders things and just roaring into contention when it mattered.
Once the pain subsides, the Brumbies will take in the lesson for another year, that even when you’re close – especially when you’re close – there is just no substitute for composure.