Super Rugby AU Final: Brumbies v Reds

Super Rugby AU Final: Brumbies v Reds

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.

Indisciplined

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.

 Welcome return

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.

Injured again

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.

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Super Rugby AU: Reds v Brumbies

Super Rugby AU: Reds v Brumbies

Suncorp Stadium played host to the final game of Super Rugby AU’s round-robin stage as the Reds hosted the Brumbies. With the Brumbies already having 1ˢᵗ place in the standings (and therefore an automatic spot in the final) secured, and the Reds already guaranteed of home advantage in the Qualifying Final by finishing 2ⁿᵈ, there was very little to play for ther than pride and momentum.

The Brumbies were coming in off the back of 2 convincing victories, but soon found themselves behind as Reds fullback Jock Campbell scythed through the defence out wide before offloading to captain Liam Wright to score in the corner. James O’Connor missed the conversion, but made up for this by kicking 2 penalties as the Reds took control of the game, before the Reds back line worked an overlap off the first phase of a scrum to put Chris Feauai-Sautia over in the same corner, O’Connor this time nailing the conversion. Things were looking bad for the Brumbies, but they managed to get on the scoresheet just before halftime as Pete Samu cut in from the left wing to score under the posts, giving Bayley Kuenzle an easy kick to make the score 18-7 at the break.

As the substitutions started early in the second half with a view to the coming weeks, the game presented very few chances for either team to score. O’Connor kicked another penalty in the 66ᵗʰ minute to extend the lead, and with the Brumbies unable to muster a response, Tate McDermott – who had saved a try in the first half by causing Tevita Kuridrani to knock on as he crossed the line – reacted quickest when Kuenzle muffed a high ball to score in the corner and secure a 26-7 victory for the Reds.

Straighten up

If the tries in this game showed one thing, it was the importance of running straight lines to maximise the space on the pitch.

Straight lines from the inside runners meant that when Jock Campbell got hands on the ball, he found himself still having almost a third of the pitch to work with, with 3 teammates outside him keeping the width, against 2 defenders who were both narrow, with Tom Banks covering the potential grubber kick in behind. This left Campbell with so many options on how to proceed that it was easier to score than anything else and he duly utilised his pace and the threat of his outside men to slip between the 2 defenders and draw Tom Banks to convert a 3v1 overlap.

Then again for their second try, the drift from James O’Connor (with Filipo Daugunu sticking on his shoulder) and then Jordan Petaia running a hard, straight line led to the Brumbies defence coming in too narrow and being completely exposed by the ball out the back to Hamish Stewart. This meant that the widest defender – Tom Wright panicked at the overlap and tried jamming up on Stewart too late (which was unnecessary as Tevita Kuridrani was able to drift out onto Stewart. With Wright biting too late, it was easy for Stewart to get the ball away to Jock Campbell, who again successfully completed the 2v1 against Tom Banks to put Chris Feauai-Sautia over in the corner.

While both these tries showed the impact of running straight in the middle of the pitch to create the space out wide, Pete Samu’s try for the Brumbies also showed the ease with which straightening up a play that is drifting can beat a defence. Tom Wright got the ball about 17m in from touch but the inside runners hadn’t successfully drawn their men so he was immediately continuing the outside arc that he caught the ball on, with Pete Samu the only man outside him. His arc failed to successfully draw the defender out wide (Tate McDermott), but even by cutting inside he still found him forced towards the touchline by the 4 defenders chasing over, with more on their way. Thankfully for the Brumbies, Samu gave him an option by cutting back inside and taking the offload from Wright, which immediately caught out the first wave of Reds defenders who had all over-chased and getting through the gap before the second wave could plug it. Samu makes it look easy, but too often you will see the wide man try to hold his wide line in these circumstances and find themselves eventually getting the ball with the defence already pushing them into touch.

There is a time and place to drift and arc outside, but if you want to create space, sometimes the simplest way to do so is just to run straight.

From red to gold?

If I’m being completely honest, there is no fullback in the competition that has stood head and shoulders above the others, but if I was selecting the next Wallabies squad, I would have a close eye on Jock Campbell.

The Reds’ utility back is making himself at home in the 15 shirt and looks more confident with every game. While his attacking stats were generally lower than Tom Banks in this game (10 runs for 44m versus 17 runs for 152), his impact on the game was much more noticeable. As a utility back, he has a great blend of pace with handling and footwork, all of which was highlighted for Liam Wright’s try as he used his pace to beat Tevita Kuridrani to the outside with an arcing run that took out Tom Wright, before drawing Tom Banks and slipping an offload to Wright out the back of his hand the moment Banks turned his shoulders inside.

With nobody else standing head and shoulders above him, I’d love to see him given a chance in the Wallabies 15 jersey. He certainly has competition for the position with Reece Hodge and Tom Banks both just a year older but far more experienced and Jack Maddocks a couple of years younger, but Campbell looks like he would provide that extra playmaking option coming into the line and is certainly one of the form players.

Will he get a shot? He’s certainly giving Dave Rennie some good headaches right now.

Kit talk

Something a little different to finish off today with a quick mention for the kits that both teams were wearing. Both the Reds and the Brumbies were wearing their indigenous kits.

Personally I love these kits as they immediately become something far more individual, while I can’t help find that the majority of professional rugby teams have somewhat boring designs. Personally, I love something with more individuality, which made me a fan of the Leicester Tigers home kit from the 2012/13 season, which saw the Leicester colours used in a design that imitated a tiger stripe pattern, while the alternate kit did similar in  shades of grey and black for a striking effect.

I’ve been a big fan of Pacific Island, Australian and New Zealand club and national team kits that have a design heavily influenced by their indigenous history. It is a great nod to the people of the country while also making a much more unique and recognisable look.

Personally, I would love it if teams used one of either their home or away kits to always have some form of indigenous design. After all, why should the indigenous people only be celebrated a couple of weeks in the season?

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Super Rugby AU: Brumbies v Western Force

Super Rugby AU: Brumbies v Western Force

The final Friday match of 2020’s Super Rugby AU has been played and the first playoff spot is now confirmed following the Brumbies’ match against the Western Force in Canberra.

Without a win to their name in the competition, the Force were clear underdogs, but took the lead at GIO Stadium as a series of rucks on the Brumbies try line were finally converted by flanker Fergus Lee-Warner stretching out an arm as he was tackled short. The Brumbies had 2 tries disallowed in less than a minute of gametime, but scored shortly after as Tom Wright crossed in the corner. The Brumbies crossed again just before half time as Tom Banks’ arcing run beat Marcel Brache to the outside and just kept control of the ball on his way down despite Jack McGregor’s attempts to dislodge it, giving the Brumbies a 10-7 lead at the break.

Will Miller crossed in the corner soon after the restart, but Jono Lance managed to wriggle out of a tackle and make it to the line to keep the scoreline close. That was as close as the Force could get, though, and the Brumbies extended their lead as they flooded around the corner at the breakdown faster than the Force, creating a 7v2 overlap that Len Ikitau finished with ease. With just a couple of minutes left, Andy Muirhead just beat the defence to an Irae Simone grubber kick into the in-goal to secure the bonus point and a 31-14 win that guarantees them top spot in the table and home advantage in the final.

Equality

This is a match that will be remembered for a historic reason. Amy Perrett, who had previously became the first female assistant referee in Super Rugby, had the honour of becoming the first woman to referee a Super Rugby match. And she looked very good doing so, much better than many of her male colleagues around the world who regularly referee top flight games.

Throughout the game, she was consistent in her decisions against both teams, and communicated extremely well with both her team of officials and also the players. With a performance like this, I hope we see her refereeing another match in the tournament before it’s all over!

The sad thing is that this is such a story in this day and age. Sara Cox became the first female to referee a Premiership Rugby Cup match in November 2018 and is about to become the first female official in a Premiership game as an assistant referee when Bath face Wasps on Monday. February 2018 saw Joy Neville become the first female to referee a Pro14 match (in the process becoming the first woman to referee a top-level men’s rugby union match in the UK). Neville also became the first woman to referee a European Rugby Challenge Cup match in December 2017, while just a couple of months earlier, Alhambra Nievas became the first woman to referee a men’s rugby union international in Europe, having become the first woman to officiate in a men’s rugby union international in November 2016.

Sadly these appointments are still somewhat of a rarity, while less talented men get the chance to officiate matches regularly. There is no reason that the role of a rugby union referee or official in the men’s game requires a male to do it. To me, the male and female officials should all have an equal chance of refereeing a men’s or women’s game, with the best officials getting the top games. Hopefully with this landmark moment for Amy Perrett, we are one step closer to that.

Stepping up

With the Wallabies having a new head coach and a number of internationals having retired or moved on following the World Cup, Super Rugby AU is an opportunity for a number of players to put their hands up for international selection. One of thse you would ahve expected to be doing so is fullback Tom Banks, but he has had a largely quiet tournament… until today.

Maybe it has been tighter defences, maybe it is a relatively basic gameplan due to an inexperience fly half in Bayley Kuenzle, but Banks’ role in attack has been limited throughout the tournament, with many of his biggest inputs his penalties to touch that have given the forwards the position to set up a catch and drive.

He came alive in this match however, with 115 metres amassed off 12 carries – 43 more than the next person on the pitch. He looked sharper and also put himself in the position to exploit any match-ups, like with his try, where his arcing run was too fast for Marcel Brache.

On the performances so far in the competition, the 15 spot is up for grabs. With his big boot coming in handy in the kicking game, if he can build n this performance and show more of the same in Round 10 and the final, then Banks is in a great position to earn selection.

All in

With 7 losses from 7 games, next week’s match against the Melbourne Rebels is the Western Force’s only chance to avoid the whitewash. Their “home” loss to the Rebels in Super Time is still the closest they have come to a win, so they need to go all out to win this by making sure their best players are all on the field. So who would I pick if this was my choice?

Well the front row looks pretty settled with Pek Cowan, Andrew Ready and Kieran Longbottom starting (unless Greg Holmes is back from injury) and Chris Heiberg, Feleti Kaitu’u and Tom Sheminant on the bench. Jeremy Thrush is a guaranteed starter in the second row, and I would partner him with Fergus Lee-Warner, who has excelled at 5 or 6, as this then allows for all 3 of Henry Stowers, Kane Koteca and Brynard Stander to start i the back row. The lock and back row positions on the bench could then be filled by Ollie Atkins and Tevin Ferris.

Moving onto the backs, captain Ian Prior and Jono Lance have the 9 and 10 positions secured. Byron Ralston is the best winger in the squad by a mile, while Jack McGregor holds the fullback spot to act as a second playmaker. Chris Godwin and Richard Kahui have been key to the Force’s improvement and I would have looked to keep them as my centre pair, but a strong performance today from Henry Taefu – who used his physicality to great effect in both attack and defence – has earned him the 12 shirt, with Kahui at 13 and Chris Godwin on the wing. On the bench, Nick Frisby provides experience at 9, Jake Strachan can come on at 15 in place of either lance or McGregor, while Marcel Brache gets the final spot over Brad Lacey due to his ability to cover both the centre and wing.

Is that a team that can beat the Rebels? It’s certainly got a shot.

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Super Rugby AU: Brumbies v Waratahs

Super Rugby AU: Brumbies v Waratahs

The second match of Super Rugby AU’s Round 8 saw the Brumbies face off against the NSW Waratahs. The ‘Tahs were coming into the game off the back of 2 strong wins, but had not won 3 consecutive matches since 2018 and missed a chance to take an early lead as Jack Dempsey knocked on while reaching for the line. The Brumbies took the lead in controversial fashion on the 15 minute mark as scrum half Ryan Lonergan was awarded a try after diving on Bayley Kuenzle’s kick through, despite replays during the review showing that Lonergan was offside. A Will Harrison penalty cut the lead, but Andy Muirhead collected a cross-kick to go over in the corner. Harrison kicked anther penalty and a strong run out wide from hooker Tom Horton set Dempsey up for a try to make the halftime score 12-11.

The Brumbies extended their lead soon after half time as a wide pass from Irae Simone found Pete Samu out wide, and the number 8 showed a good step and acceleration to make it to the line first. This was the first of 3 tries in a 12 minute spell from the Brumbies as winger Tom Wright crossed twice in the left corner to take the game away from the Waratahs. With tie running down, Pete Samu found time to squeeze in at the right corner for one final try despite having 3 players trying to force him into touch, Kuenzle kicking the conversion to secure a 38-11 victory and put them back on top of the standings.

Inexcusable

The TMO usage in recent weeks has been highly impressive, with TMOs already making the checks while the on-field officials have discussed whether to refer, leading to minimal stoppage in the game. Unfortunately, a lot of that good work was undone today by TMO Ian Smith for Ryan Lonergan’s opening try.

Bayley Kuenzle put through a clever grubber kick from just outside the Waratahs 22, which Lonergan chased down, just beating James Ramm to dot down the ball in the in-goal. The try was referred to the TMO initially to check the grounding, but the question of offside was also rightfully added. After a couple of looks, Smith decided that there was no clear offside and the grounding was good, so the try was rewarded.

However, anyone with any eyes could see that Kuenzle was outside the 22 and the kick itself was on the 22 at best, while all of Lonergan’s body was clearly inside the 22, it looked like by at least a foot. So at the time of the kick, Lonergan was clearly offside. Now that in itself is not an offence, as long as he does not chase forward until he has been played onside by either the kicker or another teammate who was onside. However the replays clearly showed that Lonergan continued chasing the ball and was never actually played onside by a teammate at any point, so the game should have remained scoreless and the Waratahs should have had a penalty on the edge of their 22.

Judging by the Waratahs’ performance in this game, I don’t think that this missed call decided the match in any way, but in a game where momentum is key, that was a crucial call and an embarrassing mistake from Ian Smith. If players are being expected to perform at the top of their game, the same must be expected of officials, especially those who have the chance to use video replays to inform their decision.

Hit and miss

As I said above, I don’t think the poor TMO decision for Lonergan’s try really affected the final outcome, as the ‘Tahs just weren’t good enough. Watching this game and yesterday’s big win for the Reds, it’s hard to believe that just a couple of weeks ago the Waratahs were putting the Reds to the sword!

The ‘Tahs had no platform to build off in this game as their scrum was brutalised by the Brumbies pack, while Tom Horton’s throwing at the lineout was a liability as the team won only 7 of their 12 throws (58%). To make it even worse, one overthrow on halfway was so bad, it set up a Brumbies attack that took just the one phase to go half the length of the pitch and put Wright over in the corner. With so little platform, it’s no surprise that they lost!

But sadly that wasn’t it for the ‘Tahs, as their back line couldn’t get anything going when they did get ball. Jack Maddocks and James Ramm have been so dangerous in attack but were given so little ball to work with in this game. It felt like Karmichael Hunt’s injury before the game was costly as Will Harrison didn’t look as comfortable or dangerous, while the amount of times the ball went to floor as the ball went down the line suggested that the midfield hadn’t had much time practising together following the late reshuffle.

This is a young team that will just get better with time, but until then we may see their performances go up and down. With their match away to the Rebels their last in the competition, it is likely to be the decider as to who earns that 3ʳᵈ playoff spot. On this performance, I have to give the advantage to the Rebels.

Back row balance

While both teams certainly have areas where they need to improve, they both have a great balance in their back rows.

In Michael Hooper and Will Miller, they both have a great fetcher who will continually cause issues at the opposition breakdown and come up with some key turnovers, while Hooper is also a threat with ball in hand if given space.

Lachlan Swinton has established himself as the enforcer with his carrying and tackling, while the Brumbies have 2 great options at 6 in young Rob Valentini or the more experienced Lachlan McCaffrey, who was one of the star players in the pack on a rare start.

And then finally at number 8, you have 2 players who will surely be pushing for international honours in Pete Samu and Jack Dempsey. Both are great all-rounders, with great strength in their carrying but also pace to exploit open ground, while both are also equally adept in defence, making key tackles and getting stuck into the breakdown.

With such well balanced back rows, it’s always going to give a team a fighting shot around the park. Don’t be shocked to see a number of these players putting their hands up for selection when Dave Rennie names his first squad.

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Super Rugby AU: Rebels v Brumbies

Super Rugby AU: Rebels v Brumbies

Round 6 sees us enter the back half of Super Rugby AU’s regular season and that means it’s time to kick off the reverse fixtures. First up was a trip to Leichhardt Oval as the Melbourne Rebels took on the unbeaten Brumbies.

Though neither team would usually consider Leichhardt Oval home, it was a home away from home for the deposed Rebels and they got off to a near-perfect start with Reece Hodge crossing in the corner just 3 minutes in. Things soon got worse for the Brumbies as their next attack came to a costly end as an attempted grubber through the Rebels’s defence rebounded behind the attacking Brumbies, Marika Koroibete kicked the loose ball on and when Andy Muirhead missed trying to fall on the ball 5 metres from his line, Koroibete collected and offloaded to the onrushing Brad Wilkin, who was not being stopped from that range. The Brumbies quickly hit back as a catch and drive 10m out from the Rebels’ line setup Joe Powell to score, but this was quickly cancelled out as Reece Hodge scored again, beating Tom Banks to a grubber through. Matt To’omua added a penalty and Jordan Uelese powered over from short range to give the Rebels a 27-7 lead at the halfway mark.

While 27 point was the most the Rebels had scored away from Melbourne in their Super Rugby history, the second half was far from high scoring. To’omua added a penalty to extend the lead, before a combination of substitutions, handling errors and penalties against the attacking team saw the rest of the half go scoreless until the final minute, when Will Miller crossed from close range to give the final score a slightly more respectable look at 30-12.

Out of sorts

If someone watched this game with no knowledge of how the previous 5 rounds had gone, there is no way they would think that the Brumbies were the unbeaten side. They really didn’t turn up for this match.

Right from the opening whistle they were on the back foot, leading to Reece Hodge’s try on just 3 minutes. Their attacks often seemed half-hearted, while in defence, they were sluggish to react to the Rebels and found themselves pushed back by the Rebels’ carriers and made to chase the ball all game long as Andrew Deegan controlled the game and continually pinned them back deep in their own territory.

Their heads dropped and with that the game got even further away from them, as their attacks continued to lack the intensity of recent weeks, seeing the team pushed back in contact and ending lots of attacks with turnovers, penalties or handling errors.

This loss really opens up the table with the 1ˢᵗ place finisher getting an automatic spot in the final and 2ⁿᵈ getting home advantage against 3ʳᵈ in the playoff for the other spot in the final. The Brumbies need to recover quickly or this could be costly.

Out of position

A few weeks ago, I suggested that the replacements bench should be expanded so that players going off injured and a team not having a suitable replacement on the bench doesn’t end up negatively impacting the game. Well, this match had me doubling down n this opinion.

As if a raft of substitutions wasn’t already going to impact the Rebels’ consistency in the second half, they lost replacement back row Rob Leota to injury just 10 minutes after he came onto the pitch. With replacement lock Mike Stolberg already on, it left the Rebels turning to centre Bill Meakes to fill in at flanker. While Meakes did a good job and didn’t look out of place on the side of the scrum, he’s still playing in a position that he is wholly unprepared for and having a centre in the back row seriously hampers the pack’s options at the lineout and the moves that can be ran off a scrum.

To make matters even worse, Meakes’ appearance at flanker meant that he wasn’t available to come on 5 minutes later when Reece Hodge came off, leading to Frank Lomani having to once again fill in on the wing. As I said before, Lomani is a great player and dangerous runner, but he is not a winger and in a closer match, these 2 players being out of position could prove costly.

If World Rugby is determined to fiddle with the game, then increasing the options on the bench will be much more beneficial than a 50/22 kick or these new goal-line drop-outs.

Countermeasures

When the Brumbies get a lineout within 10 metres of the opponents’ line, it’s often a fair assumption that they will go for the catch and drive and end up with a try. Well the Rebels managed to stop this in the first half with the easiest of strategies: putting a man in the air. Folau Fainga’a underthrew the lineout and it was an easy steal for Matt Philip.

This got me thinking: why not always get a man competing in the air at Brumbies lineouts within your 22? The Brumbies maul is nigh-unstoppable, but the lineout is shaky. If you compete in the air and miss it, the result will probably be no different that if you had stayed on the ground. However, putting a man in the air – even if it is just at the front every time – adds extra pressure on the hooker. Fainga’a and Connal McInerney already struggle enough to hit double-top at lineouts, and with any extra pressure, the chances of an overthrow/underthrow/not straight increases.

And with the lineout being such an issue for the Brumbies, why limit that pressure to inside your own 22? Get a man in the air at the majority of lineouts and the job of the Brumbies hookers becomes so much harder.

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Super Rugby AU: Brumbies v Reds

Super Rugby AU: Brumbies v Reds

Super Rugby AU reached the halfway point of its regular season and in fitting fashion it was a table-topping clash between the 2 unbeaten teams in the competition as the Queensland Reds came to GIO Stadium.

The game couldn’t have started much worse for the Reds, as a series of penalties gave the Brumbies a lineout 5m from the Reds tryline just 5 minutes into the game. The Brumbies’ driving maul is one of the most deadly weapons in the game and it duly transported Folau Fainga’s over the line for the opening try. As a titanic battle continued, the Brumbies driving maul got another chance to shine and again transported Folau Fainga’a over for another try, before James O’Connor finally got the Reds on the scoreboard with a penalty.

The Reds came out firing after the break and number 8 Harry Wilson was put through a gap to score a try just minutes after the restart. Minutes later, Wilson was through another gap, and though he was stopped just short this time, his fellow back rower Angus Scott-Young took the ball the final few inches to put the Reds ahead for the first time in the game. O’Connor added another penalty and it looked like the Reds would get a huge victory, until a late penalty set the Brumbies up with another 5m lineout. Folau Fainga’a was off the pitch by this point, but his replacement Connal McInerney duly took the armchair ride over the line, but with the scores at 19-20, replacement Mack Hansen pulled the conversion wide, only to be given a lifeline at the death as the Brumbies won a penalty, which he duly dispatched to pull a 22-20 victory from the jaws of defeat.

Architects of their own defeat

The Reds have nobody to blame for this loss but themselves. If there is one team that you need to stay disciplined against, it’s the Brumbies, due to the danger of their driving maul. The Reds gave away a whopping 9 penalties and were lucky not to lose a man to the bin within just 6 minutes of the game starting. It massively impacted the Reds’ ability to get into the first half, as they found themselves continually pushed back deep into their own half and struggling to get possession. Meanwhile in the second half, the Reds managed to concede just 3 penalties (all in the last 10 minutes) and as a result they looked a much more dangerous team, able to play with ball in hand and express themselves.

More than that, though, when the Reds look back at this game, they will be absolutely kicking themselves as every point they conceded in this match came as a direct result of the penalties they conceded. Both of the first half’s tries and conversions came from penalties being kicked to the corner then driven over the line. Then, of those 3 second half penalties, the first was kicked to the corner and driven over, while the final one was kicked off the tee for the game-winner.

There is a chance that the final minutes of this game prove costly to the Reds’ playoff position. If so, they will be kicking themselves for their lack of discipline.

Give him the ball

The Brumbies have a number of top quality ball carriers in their ranks, including but not limited to Tevita Kuridrani, Irae Simone, Solomone Kata and Pete Samu, but the more ball carriers you have, the better, in order to create the space for the fliers on the pitch. For that reason, I want to see more from Rob Valentini.

Granted he is only 21 at the moment, so will surely improve over the next couple of years, but he is a big guy and they need to utilise that physicality. Right now, he appears to be held more as a defensive enforcer, but 44m from 9 carries (including 2 defenders beaten) in this match highlighted just how good he can be if they utilise him as a carrier.

With a new head coach, Lukhan Salakaia-Loto playing at lock and David Pocock retired, the back row spots for the Wallabies are wide open and as a young player who will be in his prime from RWC2023 through RWC2027 and an experienced veteran come RWC2031, this is the perfect time to consider making the youngster a regular in the squad and looking to add to his game.

Balls of steel

With the game looking certain to be a Reds victory, it looked like the scapegoat for the Brumbies loss was unfortunately going to be replacement fly half Mack Hansen. The 22-year-old (the eldest fly half to have featured for them in this competition by 3 months – talk about trusting in youth!) had the unenviable task of having to kick a potential game-winner with his first attempt at goal and pulled the kick wide. Then as the game ticked into the final minute of play, Hansen went for a 50/22 – understandable given the strength of their maul, but very risky – and got the kick completely wrong, gifting possession back to the Reds.

Thankfully for the Brumbies, poor game management from the Reds gave the Brumbies one more chance to win it, and at this point I have to give so much credit to Hansen. Those 2 poor kicks could have easily knocked his confidence, but he didn’t hesitate in pointing to the posts. Those 2 kicks could have put him off his rhythm, but instead he made corrections from his missed conversion and bisected the posts to win the game.

I couldn’t help be reminded of Jonny Wilkinson on that fateful night in Sydney in 2003, where the England fly half missed 4 drop goal attempts during the Rugby World Cup final, only to step up and kick the winning drop goal with just 26 seconds remaining with his weaker right foot! Now, I’m not saying that Hansen is the next Jonny Wilkinson (though if that ends up being the case you heard it here first), but it just highlighted how hard kickers must work to become experts at their craft, that in the moment they can put all those bad moments out of their mind and focus on the moment. That is dedication to one’s craft and this was a great moment to highlight it.

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Super Rugby AU: Waratahs v Brumbies

Super Rugby AU: Waratahs v Brumbies

Round 3 of Super Rugby AU completed at ANZ Stadium as the Waratahs hosted the Brumbies. The away team shot out of the blocks and took an early lead when Thomas Cusack crossed for the opening try after 5 minutes. 2 Will Harrison penalties put the Waratahs ahead and with Brumbies winger Andy Muirhead in the bin, they soon extended their lead with tries from Tom Horton and James Ramm, Harrison kicking both conversions. The Brumbies fought back after the half hour mark, however, and tries from Folau Fainga’a and Rob Valentini pulled them back to 20-17 by the break.

In the second half, points were at a premium. Harrison kicked another penalty to extend the lead to 6. Then with just minues left, a period of sustained pressure from the Brumbies saw replacement scrum half Issak Fines find a gap to cross under the posts, with Bayley Kuenzle – on just before half time for the injured Noah Lolesio – kicking the conversion to win the game 23-24.

Evolution is a long process

By the 3ʳᵈ round of Super Rugby Aotearoa, here was a clear improvement in team discipline as players adapted to the new interpretations by referees at the breakdown. Right now, I’m not seeing this same improvement in Australia. Andy Muirhead found himself sin binned just a quarter of the way through the match after referee Angus Gardner tired of a series of offside penalties in quick succession. It is not hard to stay onside at the breakdown, and while a couple of penalties due to players jumping the gun is understandable, the sheer number of penalties being given away was ridiculous and they are lucky that this didn’t end up costing them the match.

But it’s not just the offside that the teams seem to be struggling with. Michael Hooper is an elite openside flanker and a wily jackal, and yet time after time in this game I heard him conversing at the breakdown with Angus Gardner, appealing for a “Holding on” penalty only to be told that his jackal wasn’t valid as he was not supporting his own weight. Years of the laws being ignored has led to players struggling to adapt from not supporting their weight and just getting over the ball like a barnacle into supporting their weight and positively trying to lift the ball to affect the turnover.

If some of Australia’s best players are struggling to adapt to these new adaptations, the Wallabies could be in trouble when internationals return.

Lineout woes

The Brumbies’ driving maul off a lineout is one of the most dangerous weapons in rugby. There is only one problem: their lineout is far from perfect.

The Brumbies had a whopping 22 lineouts during the game, but only managed to win 14 of them (63%). The set pieces are such vital areas of the game, you know that there will be significant time spent on this area, so to only win 63% on your own throw (with such a high number of attempts) is woeful. With stats like that, you don’t deserve to be winning the game.

You have to imagine that either the same is happening in practice, in which case why is it not being addressed and improved. If this is only happening in the game, then the coaches need to find out what is stopping the team from performing the same in training. Either way, changes need to made quick, or the opposition will start to play a territory first game, kicking the ball out downfield in the expectation of being able to win the ball back at a number of their lineouts.

Play of the game

Without a doubt my favourite moment of the game was James Ramm’s 29ᵗʰ minute try. With a penalty around halfway, Will Harrison had the ball and it looked like he was going to put the ball in the corner over the nearside touchline. However as the Brumbies positioned themselves to react to this, he took a quick tap and instead kicked deep into the 22 on the far side of the pitch, allowing the ball to bounce into the hands of James Ramm, who had timed his run perfectly.

The reason I love this so much: it’s 2 young players who were not afraid to play want was in front of them and take a chance on something that probably isn’t guaranteed. A lineout in the Brumbies’ 22 was all-but guaranteed if they went to the corner, but instead, Harrison and Ramm saw a chance an went for the high risk/high reward option. That ball could have bounced anywhere in the moment but luck was on their side and it bounced up perfectly for the try.

I love seeing these moments of heads-up play and individuality so much. Too often these days rugby is just played by rote, with multi-phase planned moves to manipulate a defence in a certain way to complete the move as expected. Perhaps this heads-up rugby is why I enjoy watching Fiji and the All Blacks so much.

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Super Rugby AU: Brumbies v Rebels

Super Rugby AU: Brumbies v Rebels

The day after Australia were intended to play Ireland during the Summer Tours, the opening round of Super Rugby AU was finished with The Brumbies taking on the Melbourne Rebels in Canberra.

In front of a socially distanced crowd of 1500 at GIO Stadium, the home team took an early lead as wing Andy Muirhead crossed within minutes of the game kicking off. While Matt To’omua pulled things back a little with a couple of penalties, it was short lived as 2 more tries from Joe Powell and Folau Fainga’a created a 19-6 score at the break. It was more of the same when play resumed as a break from young fly half Noah Lolesio resulted in a try for Tom Wright. Something finally clicked for the Rebels just before the hour and they pulled themselves back into the game with 2 quick tries from Jordan Uelese and Dane Haylett-Petty. 4 points down with 10 minutes left, the Rebels chose to kick a penalty to bring it within a point, hut they could not create another scoring opportunity and a when Will Miller scored from a lineout drive with just minutes left, the win was confirmed for the Brumbies, with Lolesio’s successful conversion making the score 31-23 and denying the Rebels a losing bonus point.

Round 1 rustiness

I’m not going to lie: this was not the best of adverts for Australian rugby, as it was very clear that there was some rustiness from both teams. Though the competition was announced in mid-May, there is no real substitute for live match experience, and it certainly showed as a number of passes went to floor from both teams, bringing an end to a number of attacks early on.

Even more than that, is the adaptation to the way that the breakdown is being refereed. We saw huge numbers of penalties in the early matches of Super Rugby Aotearoa, and while I’m sure the players have watched tape in an attempt to learn the new adaptations, we are still seeing a large number of penalties conceded for a range of breakdown offences.

As Super Rugby Aotearoa has show, the penalty count will drop over the coming weeks. Expect whoever can adapt quickest over the next couple of weeks to have a slight advantage.

The Brumbies not-so-secret weapon

The Brumbies have a not-so-secret weapon in their arsenal that teams just don’t seem able to stop: their lineout. You just have to look at the amount of tries Folau Fainga’a has scored in recent seasons to get a idea just how dangerous the Brumbies are at this set piece.

In this match, the lineout played a heavy role in 3 of the Brumbies’ 5 tries. Their opener came on the first phase, with the maul being set to draw in the pack and then turned to open up the open side. rather than join the back of the maul, Fainga’a took the ball on the loop and ran an outside line, before passing back inside to the hidden Andy Muirhead, who raced through the gap that had been created to reach the line. For the next try, the driving maul drew in a number of players to halt it’s progress, allowing Joe Powell to snipe for the line before the remaining defenders could get set. And then finally the winning try from Will Miller was just a example of a devastating catch and drive that spat the Rebels forwards out the back as it rushed to the line.

The Brumbies weapon means that as an opponent, you can’t afford to give a penalty away anywhere in or around your own half, as they will just kick to touch and use the platform of the lineout to make you pay the ultimate price. Similarly, you can imagine that they will be looking to take advantage of the new 50/22 and 22/50 kicks as much as possible to work their way up the field. With the higher penalty counts likely in the early rounds, the Brumbies could get off to a strong start in the tournament.

New star

This match was meant to be a special occasion for Matt To’omua, who was making his 100ᵗʰ Super Rugby appearance. Sadly, he was completely overshadowed by his opposite number Noah Lolesio.

Though he missed a couple of kicks off the tee, the 20-year-old put in a great performance, controlling the game well and moving the team around the park, including a great break early in the second half, after which he was mature enough to draw in Dane Haylett-Petty before calmly feeding Tom Wright for the try.

Fly half has been a bit of a problem position for Australia for a while, with nobody managing to regularly and effectively control the game. But it looks like Lolesio and Waratahs fly half Will Harrison could be the future for the Wallabies at the position an should be in and around the squad as soon as possible if they maintain their performances from this round.

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