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The Wrap: Rebels’ emotions mask 'anger and frustration' as Brumbies cop a six-day semifinal turnaround

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Expert
9th June, 2024
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Super Rugby’s form-lines held strong as all four quarterfinals delivered convincing wins for the top-ranked sides.

It is the way of modern rugby that genuine, David-slaying-Goliath upsets are few and far between. In another time, it was possible for an underdog to keep a game tight, and scrap and niggle their way to a 9-6 win.

But with laws and referee applications favouring ball recycling (when is the last time you saw a breakdown/ruck end in a scrum?), and lesser sides required to score points themselves, thus exposing themselves to error and punishment, fairytales are just that.

For 39 minutes the Rebels injected impressive physicality and intent into upsetting the Hurricanes’ rhythm, but in the end they couldn’t shake off their season-long weakness in defending their line against multiple, direct power surges.

There was a magic spell entering the final quarter – Lachie Anderson’s thrilling second try nearly lifted the roof off a packed Bells Hotel in Melbourne – and admiration for the sustained combativeness and skill of players like Josh Canham and Ryan Louwrens.

But all that was left at the end, with the score at 47-20, was for the team and everyone associated with the club, to contemplate a different future.

Coach Kevin Foote of the Rebels hugs Ryan Louwrens after the Super Rugby Pacific Quarter Final match between Hurricanes and Melbourne Rebels at Sky Stadium, on June 08, 2024, in Wellington, New Zealand. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Coach Kevin Foote of the Rebels hugs Ryan Louwrens (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

It’s impossible to overstate the leadership qualities shown by key people – headed by Kevin Foote and Nick Stiles – and the resilience of the playing and high-performance group, in managing to hold things together throughout this season, under enormous uncertainty and stress.

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The emotional release at the end of the match was not because a match was lost, or a club has been lost, or because the pathway to professional rugby in Victoria has been cut off at the knees.

It was a result of this particular group, having done what everyone has demanded they do – make themselves truly competitive – week after week having their preparation compromised, never being allowed to perform at their best, and being prevented from building off this platform into next year and beyond.

Imagine putting another 12 months into a Lukhan Salakaia-Loto/Canham locking combination? The sky – literally – would be the limit.

Consider the natural improvement to come from highly promising players like Isaac Aedo-Kailea and Darby Lancaster? The emergence through the Rebels system of impressive young talent like Leafi Talataina, Ottavio Tuipolotu, Judah Suamaisue, David Vaihu and others? Another year of cohesion into an already well-respected coaching group?

The insistence of commentators like Tim Horan and others that Australian rugby will benefit from having these players and coaches dropped selectively into the remaining four franchises ignores the obvious; the importance of culture and cohesion. This is, or was, a group set on playing with and for each other.

They are professionals and when the time comes, many of them will thrive in their new homes. Others will be lost to Australian rugby and some, it seems, will be lost to high-performance rugby altogether – an appalling outcome.

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But because this team forged an identity and culture that connected them at every level – including the publicly maligned board members – what they will carry forward is not only the memories of the time they shared together, but the anger and sheer frustration of not being allowed to be the side they genuinely believed they could become.

As for the victorious Hurricanes, they will be delighted with having been placed under so much pressure, being forced into, and eventually figuring out, the way to unlock the Rebels’ defence.

Jordie Barrett was a central figure – it seems remarkable now to recall the debate about his suitability for 12 – while the running power of Brayden Iose and Asafo Aumua continued unabated.

Heading into the last fortnight, home ground advantage is a key trump card. So is squad balance and depth. On both counts, the Hurricanes look to be the testing material.

They will, however, have their work cut out for them if the Chiefs can replicate their outstanding first half against the Reds.

Eighteen minutes and 21 points had flown by before the Reds got their first usable possession in the attacking half. Every box was checked by the Chiefs: defensive heat, counter-ruck, ball handling, hunger and urgency, and goal-kicking.

By contrast, the Reds had resorted to arguing the toss with referee Ben O’Keeffe, who was quite entitled, along with coach Les Kiss at half-time, to advise them to focus on their own shortcomings, and lift their work-rate.

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Samisoni Taukei'aho of the Chiefs scores a try during the Super Rugby Pacific Quarter Final match between Chiefs and Queensland Reds at FMG Stadium Waikato, on June 07, 2024, in Hamilton, New Zealand. (Photo by Michael Bradley/Getty Images)

Samisoni Taukei’aho of the Chiefs scores a try (Photo by Michael Bradley/Getty Images)

To their credit, three tries worth of credibility were salvaged in the second half, but 43-21 was far too little, too late.

Speaking afterwards, Kiss found the right balance; another harsh lesson handed out across the Tasman, but undeniable advances made on last year.

In terms of advances, there was none more impressive than that of the Chiefs’ big men, Tupou Vaa’i and Samipeni Finau, playing with controlled aggression, imposing themselves on the match in a way not yet seen this season.

Samisoni Taukei’aho is another playing with high energy and power; his head-to-head clash next week with Aumua will be as tasty as it gets.

The other semifinal will be hosted by the Blues who, like the Chiefs, got it all done in the first half, before holding off the Drua 36-5.

While all four matches ended in expected outcomes, this was the one most predictable in the playing. The Blues simply too experienced, powerful and efficient when they needed to be; the Drua brave and combative, but never for long enough.

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At least fans were treated to one final sight of Selestino Ravutaumunda jetting away for another trademark try; in a hot field of outstanding wingers, on exposed form this year, he would surely claim a position in most people’s team of the tournament.

In Canberra, the Highlanders’ scrum was as good as their lineout was bad, meaning that they never quite got the pay that they should have got from the early penalties that flowed their way.

What ensued was a terrific first half of thrust and counter thrust, with a particular highlight coming from the commentary team, when Michael Hooper – yes, that Michael Hooper – praised Noah Lolesio and the Brumbies as being “smart” for electing to take three points from a penalty instead of kicking for touch!

Later, on the stroke of half-time, the Brumbies reverted to doing what Hooper so often did; kicking to the corner, and with the siren having sounded, Billy Pollard wriggled over, turning a 16-10 deficit into a 17-16 lead.

Unfortunately for the visitors, they were barely sighted after the break, the Brumbies stepping up their pace and intensity around the breakdown, easing the score out to 32-16, and leaving the Highlanders to contemplate a significantly improved latter part of the season, with the promise of more to come next year.

On a weekend where there were some outstanding tries scored, none was better than Andy Muirhead’s second half effort; trapping a cross-kick on the half-volley, and controlling it with the skill of ‘Roy of the Rovers’ before gathering and diving over.

Andy Muirhead of the Brumbies celebrates scoring a try during the Super Rugby Pacific Quarter Final match between ACT Brumbies and Highlanders at GIO Stadium, on June 08, 2024, in Canberra, Australia. (Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images)

Andy Muirhead of the Brumbies celebrates with teammates (Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images)

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The Brumbies’ ‘reward’ was to be slapped with a six-day turnaround into Friday night’s semifinal in Auckland, with one of those days to be lost to travel.

With Super Rugby consistently under fire from fans and media for its lack of engagement, here is another example of a competition – overseen by two parents perpetually on the lookout for a better option for themselves individually – once again seemingly prepared to go to any lengths to compromise itself.

At 17 weeks, Super Rugby is already markedly shorter than rugby’s other major club/franchise competitions. Why the haste to squeeze in a semifinal on a six-day turnaround?

Of course, the answer is because it’s the preference of the TV broadcasters; flexing their muscle on one hand, while said to be lowballing their next round offers on the other.

This column has, for many years now, been as supportive and loyal to Super Rugby as any. Another season has slipped by without any meaningful sight of the new Super Rugby Commission.

With Rugby Australia so destitute, just how this commission is going to be resourced, so that it can drive the necessary fan engagement and promote the game properly, remains to be seen.

With the Melbourne Storm already in the process of signing Rebels/Victorian juniors, it’s hard not to escape the sense that here is a game shrinking before our very eyes.

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