12 weeks of Super Rugby AU action came to an end in Canberra today with the final, between the table-topping Brumbies and the Queensland Reds, who finished 2ⁿᵈ in the round-robin standings before defeating the Rebels in last weekend’s Qualifying Final.
After Noah Lolesio and James O’Connor traded early penalties, the Brumbies drew first blood as their ever-dangerous lineout drive managed to get Folau Fainga’a over the line for the opening try, with Lolesio kicking the extras. The Brumbies continued to pile on the pressure, and when Lolesio managed to draw the attention of 4 defenders in the 26ᵗʰ minute, his offload to Andy Muirhead gave the winger a clear gap to go through and he was able to ride the challenges of Taniela Tupou and Filipo Daugunu to make it across the line. It looked like the Brumbies were going to dominate the game, but Jordan Petaia found a gap in broken play just after the half hour mark and exploited it to full effect, going clear through before offloading to supporting number 8 Harry Wilson to cross for the try. O’Connor kicked the conversion and a penalty at the end of the half to make the score at the break 15-13.
The Brumbies struck first after the break, after a quick tap penalty from Muirhead put the Reds defence on the back foot, allowing Tom Banks to cross as the ball was spread wide, with Lolesio adding the extras, before adding a drop goal with the very next attack. Things went from bad to worse for the Reds, who had lost Petaia and Lukhan Salakaia-Loto to injury in the opening minutes of the half, as Filipo Daugunu was sent to the bin from the restart for a tip tackle on Lachlan McCaffrey, and Lolesio used this time to get the Brumbies in the Reds half and score another 3 pints off the tee. With the Reds back to a full complement, O’Connor kicked a penalty to bring the deficit back to within 2 converted tries, before Tate McDermott slipped his way inside the Brumbies 22. The scrum half was dragged down just short of the line and lost control of the ball, but TMO reviews showed that it went backwards, before being kicked over the line by a defender tackling Liam Wright and eventually dotted down by Angus Blyth for the try. O’Connor nailed the conversion, but any further attempts by the Reds to score were thwarted and the Brumbies held on to secure the 28-23 win and become the first Super Rugby AU Champions.
When the Reds lost to the Brumbies earlier in the competition, it was their awful discipline that proved costly. In their win in the reverse fixture 2 weeks ago, the Reds kept their discipline and controlled the game. The Reds came into the final the least-penalised team in the competition, but quickly found themselves getting on the wrong side of Angus Gardner.
While it didn’t directly cost them in quite the same way as that previous loss, the ill discipline was still costly today, as it made it so hard for the team to create any pressure on the Brumbies as they could not get any consistent time inside the Brumbies half until they improved their discipline in the final quarter, while the penalties simply allowed the Brumbies to kick into the Reds 22 and put the pressure on.
What made this even more disappointing for the Reds is just how avoidable many of these penalties were. Tip tackles, high tackles and taking the man in the air were all stupid penalties, while Hamish Stewart also gave away a penalty for being lazy and not retreating to the hind foot as the Brumbies driving maul surged forwards.
It’s not as if the Brumbies were too disciplined themselves either, especially at the scrum, and if the Reds had been just a little more disciplined, the game was there to be won.
The big talking point ahead of the match was the Brumbies’ decision to start Noah Lolesio at fly half in his first action since 18ᵗʰ July, where he picked an injury. Looking back on the match, it’s fair to say the risk paid off.
While Bayley Kuenzle has done a good job of stepping into the void following Lolesio’s injury, he plays more like a 12 than a 10, so getting Lolesio back in really helped the structure of the attack. It is no surprise that Tevita Kuridrani looked much more dangerous today with Lolesio pulling the strings, while his range of passes and kicks really opened the game up for the Brumbies.
Having been named as 1 of 4 fly halves in Dave Rennie’s Wallabies squad for the Rugby Championship, how much will the youngster play? I envision that he’s currently ahead of Will Harrison, but it will depend on how much focus Rennie puts on development over results during this tournament. Personally, I can see James O’Connor and Matt To’omua getting the majority of the minutes, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Lolesio get some decent time against Argentina.
Jordan Petaia is a fantastic talent and I’ve absolutely loved watching him in Super Rugby AU. There’s just one problem, and it’s a big one: the poor lad just can’t seem to stay fit. This latest injury came as he scythed through the Brumbies defence at the half hour mark. He was clean through and it looked like he would make it to the line, but appeared to feel a twinge in his groin and took the safe option of offloading to Harry Wilson, who crossed for the try. While Petaia played on, he did not return to the pitch following the halftime break.
Petaia has an incredible set of ball skills to go with great pace, power and elusiveness. I just can’t help but worry right now that he is set to join the list of players like James Simpson-Daniel – incredible talents who consistently find themselves missing time through injury, stopping them reaching the heights they should.
Personally, I feel that Petaia would benefit from being rested during the Rugby Championship even if he is fit, to ensure that he is 100% back to full fitness rather than just match-fit. The last thing we want is for such a great young talent to be lost from the game too soon.