When coach, Dan McKellar inherited the Brumbies from Stephen Larkham in 2018, he was faced with the task of taking a team who had failed to live up to the lofty standards of yester-years to the top of the Super Ruby table.
The Brumbies, Australia’s most successful Super Rugby team, were once a team to be feared. When schedules were announced, trips to Canberra were written off as a probable loss for any visiting coaches.
It’s been years since the Brumbies were really a force. In 2013 the men from Australia’s capital almost stole the Super Rugby crown from the Chiefs but other than this flash of success, the Brumbies have been a middling team propped up on the competition ladder due to the much-maligned structure of the Super Rugby competition.
2013 through to 2017 saw the Brumbies consistently make the knockout rounds of the competition – a five season run equalled in Australia only by themselves between 2000 and 2004. Despite this accomplishment, there was little to no expectation that the team would really cause any ripples in the playoffs, such was the relative strength of their competitors.
Once McKellar took over the reins last year, things went from bad to worse.
The Brumbies failed to make the playoffs in 2018 and also fell behind both the Waratahs and the Rebels in the Australian conference. Although the Brumbies fell to their lowest placing in six years, the fact that they won more games than in 2017 would have been a minor consolation to McKellar. There’s room to improve, no doubt, but things aren’t categorically bleak.
Fire power in the backs
The Brumbies squad has remained fairly settled between 2018 and 2019, losing only a few players overseas or to other Australian sides. This means that the potent combination of Tom Banks and Henry Speight remains in the back three and the shrewd recruitment of Toni Pulu from across the Tasman will only strengthen the Brumbies’ attack.
Pulu was once dubbed the fastest man in New Zealand rugby by his then-coach Dave Rennie and although his pace and awareness has never received much interest by the All Blacks selectors, Pulu was fast-tracked into the wider Australia squad at the end of last year to give him a taste of Wallaby life.
Though his selection on the wing is not guaranteed in a Brumbies squad well stocked with outside backs, he’ll run out in the 14 jersey for the season opener and will have plenty of opposition sides on edge.
With Christian Lealiifano running the cutter (and Wharenui Hawera a reliable, if not spectacular backup), the Brumbies will be set on making sure that the outside backs are given enough time and space to create some magic. Kyle Godwin has departed for greener pastures so it will be up to the long-serving Tevita Kuridrani to be the key link in the midfield. How he pairs with the other less experienced midfield options will be a major factor in whether the backlines hums.
Keeping the engine purring
Whilst there are a number of gamebreakers in the backs, the Brumbies’ forwards have tended to do the most damage to opposition teams in the past. With McKellar taking charge last year, the squad did seem less reliant on the frankly boring game of kick and chase had been playing under Larkham and Laurie Fisher in the preceding years – but that doesn’t mean the engine room doesn’t have a kick to it for 2019.
After a bit of controversy in 2018, Wallaby prop James Slipper has made the move west from the Reds. It’s rare to successfully court a player of such a high calibre so regardless of how Slipper has ended up in Canberra, the Brumbies will make great use of his service.
The 1-2 punch of Slipper and Scott Sio will be one of the best in the competition and with Alan Alaalatoa holding up the tighthead side of the scrum, the Brumbies will not be left wanting in the props department.
Hooker Folau Fainga’a was drafted into the squad last year to cover for injuries and made an instant impact. He has naturally been selected in the full squad for 2019 and although he lacks experience, he comes across as a player with great potential and the time he spent with the squad last year will give him confidence to push on.
Elder statesman Joshua Mann-Rea will chalk up his 50th cap later in the year and no matter which combination of hookers is put out alongside the props, the Brumbies’ front row will certainly be up there with the top quintets in Super Rugby.
The locks and loose forwards remain relatively unchanged for the Brumbies for 2019, excepting the recent addition of former Crusader Pete Samu. The Brumbies were well served last year by the likes of Rory Arnold, Sam Carter and the world class David Pocock. Samu adds a bit more mongrel to the loose forwards and although his performances for the Wallabies have not set the world alight, he is a very able player at Super Rugby level.
Playoffs to easy a goal
With almost half of the competing teams playing in the knockout matches at the end of the season, simply making the playoffs isn’t a high enough target for Australia’s premier Super Rugby franchise. The Brumbies should be setting a target of at least making the semi-finals – a feat which they will likely only achieve if they can also top the ladder in the Australian conference.
As far as draws go, the Brumbies will have no complaints for 2019. Well-spaced byes as well as multiple matches against all the Australian teams (including the Sunwolves) should path the way for a manageable run to the playoffs.
The toughest period for the Brumbies will be the month after their first bye where they will be tasked with taking on the Crusaders (away), Lions (home), Stormers (away) and Jaguares (away). If they can bank enough points in the lead up to this period and scrounge a few bonus points here and there, there’s a real chance that the Brumbies could have some hefty momentum heading into the playoffs – not dissimilar to last year when they won four out of their last five matches.
Ultimately, Dan McKellar and his Brumbies will want to earn a quarter-final berth at the bare minimum this year. On paper, they have a squad that is very capable of topping the Australian conference – whether or not they can deliver on this promise, however, is anyone’s guess.
Watch: Brumbies skipper Christian Lealiifano speaks to media ahead of Super Rugby season opener
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