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FEATURE Brumbies and Reds have confidence but distracted Rebels require major upset

Brumbies and Reds have confidence but distracted Rebels require major upset
2 weeks ago

In the end, the Super Rugby Pacific top eight finished pretty much as it was always going to. The top four teams didn’t change after Round 10, and the next four only swapped among themselves in that same timeframe.

Indeed, the Hurricanes and Blues have been interchanging first and second place since Round Six. The ACT Brumbies reached third in Round Five and never moved again.

And for the first time in the competition’s brief history, the top eight was locked in before the final match of the season. After the last game proved the decider in 2022 and 2023, the Western Force and Brumbies would have game-planned every scenario leading into their clash in Perth on Saturday night – only for it to all amount to nought, as prior results rendered their clash a bog standard game of no consequence.

With the Force falling short, and the NSW Waratahs having what outgoing coach Darren Coleman described in his laconic manner as “a rough trot” to finish 2024 in last – with just two wins, both against Crusaders – the Australian contingent for the finals series is once again three teams: the Melbourne Rebels in eighth, the fifth-placed Queensland Reds, and the third-placed Brumbies, who for a third straight season are the sole Australian representation in the top four.

The Brumbies and Reds enjoyed wins, over the Force and Waratahs respectively, though not nearly as dominant as might have been expected.

Len Ikitau
Brumbies kept the Force at arm’s length for most of the game until two late tries for the hosts (Photo James Worsfold/Getty Images)

The Reds hung on for a one-point win after copping an almighty second-half comeback from NSW in Sydney, the Tahs determined to send Coleman out with a performance to remember. The Brumbies won more comfortably than the 24-19 scoreline against the Force suggested, having done enough well before the hosts scored twice in the final three minutes.

The Rebels were superb in holding the Fijian Drua to 19-19 at half-time in Lautoka on Saturday, only for the home side to run in three converted tries in 13 minutes in front of their raucous home crowd and blow the contest apart. In those 13 minutes, you could almost see the Rebels’ traumatic previous 48 hours, when they were told their club would be wound up, catch up with them.

Rebels coach Kevin Foote tried to deflect that as an excuse afterwards, but in doing so highlighted what will undoubtedly be a huge challenge this weekend, facing the table-topping Hurricanes in Wellington.

Of course, it does add a bit of feeling. We’re a very motivated group even before we had this news, a very connected group that care a lot.

“We fed into the Drua’s strength, which is turnover ball. I think they’re some of the best players in the world when it comes to turnover ball, and they capitalised. Really good from the Drua, but from our side we just didn’t back up our first-half performance,” he said.

“We want to obviously keep our heads high and come out swinging in the quarter-finals to make all our fans and supporters proud.”

“Of course, it does add a bit of feeling,” Foote added of the club’s looming closure. “We’re a very motivated group even before we had this news, a very connected group that care a lot.

“Quarter-finals is knockout rugby, it’s 80 minutes, and obviously there’s a lot of emotion in the group to begin with, but the leaders are doing a really good job of keeping that intact at the moment.”

Filipo Daugunu
The Rebels were level at half-time against the Drua in Fiji before slumping to a sixth straight defeat (Photo Pita Simpson/Getty Images)

The Rebels’ biggest conundrum will be how to maintain the level of performance across 80 minutes, how to hold momentum when they have it, and how to regain it if or when the Hurricanes get on a roll. None of that is easily replicable on the training track back in Melbourne, and especially not as offices are being packed up.

Queensland coach Les Kiss spoke on Friday of dealing with inevitable fightbacks, something the Chiefs will almost certainly bring this Friday if the Reds happen to repeat their clinical first half against NSW.

“We just knew there would be a period in that second half where they would come into the game, and it proved to be that way, and we had to lean back on our defence at the end of the game to make sure we got the deal done,” he said.

“We’ve had one or two games, particularly against the Blues and Hurricanes, that were tight and we didn’t quite get the money, so it was nice to get this one.

Of the four quarter-finals this weekend, the fifth-placed Reds toppling the fourth-placed Chiefs at their Hamilton home is perhaps the one most likely to yield an upset.

“There’s some really important aspects of doing those things in a game that come back to pay at some stage, so we’ve been through those experiences, and a couple of times we haven’t got it, but we’re starting to understand what it does take to do that, and we proved that tonight.”

Again, second-half fade-outs can’t really be addressed with a training drill, but Kiss’s point about experiencing that in games, and now knowing what it feels like to deal with it well – and not so well – has the Reds in a good place.

Certainly, of the four quarter-finals this weekend, the fifth-placed Reds toppling the fourth-placed Chiefs at their Hamilton home is perhaps the one most likely to yield an upset.

Having broken their Christchurch duck against the Crusaders last month, and beaten the Chiefs in New Plymouth only last year, going to New Zealand for a sudden-death game won’t carry the same level of anxiety for this Reds squad.

Tim Ryan
The Reds won on New Zealand soil last month with a landmark victory over Crusaders in Christchurch (Photo Sanka Vidanagama/AFP via Getty Images)

Over in Perth, the Brumbies had their game against the Force well in hand when Tom Wright ran away for a try on the hour, but a string of final-quarter penalties gave the home side plenty of opportunity to hit back.

“The second half just didn’t really kick off for us,” Brumbies coach Stephen Larkham offered afterwards.

“We did put some points on, which was good, but just inconsistent, really. We really should have been a little bit more clinical out wide, with a couple of opportunities our backs had, and our discipline certainly let us down there as well.

“We were putting a lot of pressure on their breakdown, and we got some good pay out of that, and there’s a really fine line there between infringing and making a few mistakes in the second half.”

Discipline for the Brumbies, and fade-outs for the Reds, are at least the kind of thing they can control themselves. Or at the very least, they can address the attitudes and the behaviours that might lead to them.

There’s no doubting the Brumbies’ ability at the breakdown this season. Despite playing the same six-seven-eight combination in consecutive games only twice all year, they have consistently been among the best-performing teams in 2024. They’ve regularly shown they can starve teams of quality ball, converting that breakdown pressure into mistakes, from which this ACT side is one of deadliest in the competition from turnover ball on the counter-attack.

But discipline has been their Achilles heel in the back half of the season. They have been steadily conceding more penalties each game, and now rank among the most penalised teams in the competition.

They’ve given up five yellow cards in the past three games, too. As recently as a month ago, all five Australians sides were in the bottom half of the competition for yellow cards conceded. The Brumbies now rank in the top four.

Discipline for the Brumbies, and fade-outs for the Reds, are at least the kind of thing they can control themselves. Or at the very least, they can address the attitudes and the behaviours that might lead to them.

The Brumbies can work harder at adjusting to the referee. Queensland can steel themselves to push their effort actions deeper into the game.

Taniela Tupou
The likes of Wallabies prop Taniela Tupou will be contemplating their futures as the Rebels prepare for their first play-off game (Photo Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images)

Momentum will be a whole lot harder for the Rebels to get a handle on. It can take an age to gain but can be lost in a heartbeat.

With a decision on their future now made, it is human nature that individuals will start to consider their own future. Game-plans and match preparations will be mixed with conversations with agents, and the Rebels’ first finals foray will quite possibly be their most distracted week of the year.

It would be a phenomenal effort and one of the genuine upsets of the year if they could progress to the semi-finals. The Brumbies and Reds will go into their games with confidence, but for the Rebels – coming off six straight losses – it feels more a case of hope than expectation against top seeds the Hurricanes.

Either way, a certain new Wallabies coach will be watching on this weekend with interest.

With the three remaining Australian teams set to supply the lion’s share of the forthcoming Wallabies squad, individual performances that push their team into the semi-finals are bound to be well received.

Comments

8 Comments
T
The Late News 16 days ago

Yes Brett fully agree. Reds have a chance, Blues and Canes should do it easy and the Brumbies at home.might be a bit tough for the Highlanders.

M
Mzilikazi 17 days ago

It would be a huge upset if the Rebels were to win in NZ, so they will probably be gone at this stage. The Reds have great strike power from anywhere on the field, but will need to ensure they don’t let the Chiefs make this game into a dogfight at the breakdown. Chiefs are not as strong this year, and below the top two in NZ. Reds got well on top in the scrums when they met in Bne. Also the Chiefs second row pair on the lighter side. Should be a very tight game, on what is forecast to be a dry night. Would expect the Brumbies to progress, but not without a scare ?

M
Mitch 17 days ago

Reds to beat the Chiefs on Friday in a tight one and if the Brumbies are fair dinkum, they beat the Highlanders by 15+.

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