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Australia's SRP sides may have fallen at trans-Tasman hurdle - but three signs point to a closing gap

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7th May, 2024
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Let’s not mince words here: many an Australian commentator and rugby fan was dreading Rounds Ten and 11 this year in Super Rugby Pacific.

Coming into the last fortnight, Australia’s Super Rugby sides were enjoying a resurgence in form compared to previous seasons – which in all honesty, have had a massive impact on the discourse around the competition. 

Sure, the insane decline of the Crusaders likely dominates any other on-field narrative that has come out of the 2024 regular season, but the fact the trans-Tasman head-to-head stood at 8-7 in favour of the Kiwis going into Round Ten – with two Aussie sides entrenched in the top four – had certainly lived up to this year being a much more compelling competition. 

However, massive victories for the Kiwis – especially last weekend – have seen that head-to-head stretch out to a 15-9 margin and a 7-2 result across the last fortnight. The cold hard reality is that Australia is still behind the Kiwis in Super Rugby Pacific. 

Some punters might go as far as to diminish the Aussie wins, given most have come against the misfiring Highlanders and Crusaders.

But that argument doesn’t hold weight when you look back over the history of the competition – you only have to look at losses the South African sides of the past sustained, as well as Fiji and Moana Pasifika today, to know there is no such thing as an easy Kiwi side, and beating them can be as much a mental battle as it is a physical one. 

It’s easy to forget the days of 2016 to 2018, the real dark times – when, for 722 days, Australian sides lost 38 games on the trot to Kiwi sides. 

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Back then, for both players and fans, it felt like an insurmountable obstacle of misery. Never mind a victory, we would never even come close to beating a Kiwi side. Today, you can trust a good Australian side to not only be a shot to put away a Kiwi side but back themselves to be able to do it. 

Watch every match of Super Rugby Pacific ad-free, live & on demand on the Home of Rugby, Stan Sport

This leads to the key point – while we are still second best to the Kiwis and the 7-2 margin is damning, the gap is closing – and it’s evident in the one-percenters a few Australian sides are doing.

Granted, this is not consistent: the Western Force has had a rough ride this season with injuries, but are also deservedly at the bottom of the ladder – due to inconsistent decision-making, not matching up physically in several clashes, and team cohesion severely lacking. 

The Rebels have looked promising in several instances this season – but when it comes to delivering at crucial moments – namely against the Crusaders, Blues, Hurricanes and Reds – they have struggled to execute game plans on the field, and with a hard run home that finals spot looks tenuous at best.

The Waratahs – in all regards – have had a shocker. There is a good squad there that has matched up physically, which is why they’ve pushed so many sides – but a combination of a horror run of set-piece injuries, key specific moments of poor execution in those close games, the outside pressure of Darren Coleman’s review being made public, and arguably one of the hardest draws seen by any side in years, and it’s no wonder they are where they are. 

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However, that leads us with the Reds and Brumbies, and make no mistake – they will feature in finals, and do represent a genuine threat to the current ladder leaders. They have both identified that they have the cattle to win the competition and have a focus on three key elements: decision-making, physicality and accountability. 

Physicality is something the Reds have especially excelled at this season. It’s a good lesson for any level of rugby – you might have the most basic and simple of game plans, but if you win the physical battle, you’re likely on the front foot in any match. 

What was so positive about the Reds’ win over the Crusaders was that, until the closing stages, they were the more physical side. Big wins over the Highlanders and Rebels have often been off the back of this physical dominance, especially around the ruck.

Les Kiss openly identified this in our first episode of the Roar Rugby Podcast this year – Brad Thorn had got the side to a point where physicality had become second nature, now it was a case of working with the players to examine what decisions they choose to make on the field. 

Decision-making is the current Achilles heel facing Kiss’ Reds, and the year hasn’t been perfect – especially in the case against Moana Pasifika and against the Blues in Round Ten, choosing to take a more conservative approach in the closing stages of the match against the strongest counterattacking side in the competition.

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Conversely, the challenge has been the opposite for the Brumbies – in their two big losses to the Chiefs and Blues, the key failing was that they lost the physical battle, both in general contact and around the ruck. 

Noah Lolesio celebrates scoring during the Brumbies’ win over the Hurricanes at GIO Stadium on April 27, 2024, in Canberra. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

Jack Debreczeni admitted on The Dropped Kick-Off podcast after the Hurricanes victory that the key lesson amongst the group after Auckland was a reaffirmation of the value of the physical battle to delivering everything else.

“Amongst the group, the biggest lesson from that Blues game was… if we don’t try or at least compete for the physical battle around breakdown-carry-clean, then our game doesn’t have much punch to it,” he admitted. 

“That’s where we felt we just missed against the Blues, they out-enthused us in the contact areas of the game. If you give away that side of the game you’re on the backfoot pretty much from the word go.

“[Leading up to the Canes game], the whole week was pretty physical at training. Some boys called it, we played three games last week, essentially. 

“But it was simple. Rather than fix 20 things, can we just improve physicality on both sides of the ball?”

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Truthfully, the difference between the Blues and the Canes matches wasn’t dissimilar in terms of structure and style, but the physicality made all the difference. 

This leads to the final point both the Reds and Brumbies are exhibiting – many commenters will speak blue in the mouth of the inconsistency week-to-week of the Australian sides. While it is valid, both sides are not just close to overcoming that, but are showing accountability for poor performances. 

While the Reds did lose three on the trot, their victory over the Highlanders has laid the groundwork for two strong performances against the Blues and Crusaders. This comes at a good time, with a good run home against the Rebels, Drua, Force and Waratahs. 

How did the Brumbies respond to that Chiefs loss? A five-match winning streak that saw them improve week after week. How did they respond to that Blues loss? They beat the best team in the competition. It is a sign of a side going that extra mile, and not letting the mistakes compound. 

With games against the Waratahs, Crusaders, Rebels and Force, they put themselves in a strong position to push for a top-two finish if they continue to execute. All those games are winnable, for both sides. 

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While the trans-Tasman fortnight was a rough experience for fans, there are bright sparks in the darkness – not the sort of blind optimism that has permeated previous seasons, not a one-off victory or a surprise result. We are talking back-to-back weeks that see Australian sides right in the contest, competing with the Kiwis.

The season isn’t over yet, but we are a long way from where we were a few years ago. Change is afoot.

The only worry is, as alluded to by Matt Toomua several times on the Roar Rugby Podcast, this year is a flash in the pan. The Kiwis are, without a doubt, experiencing a year of transition with new players and coaches, and if there is one thing they are good at, it is growing that talent with time in the saddle. 

This season has to be a sign of things that could be – and Australia’s other franchises best take note of what the Brumbies and Reds are doing. We need to see more from them, simple as that.

All due respect to our Kiwi brethren, the last thing Super Rugby Pacific needs is another New Zealand side leapfrogging all challengers in 2025.

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