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FEATURE Brumbies the best team in Australia but still nothing to show for it

Brumbies the best team in Australia but still nothing to show for it
3 weeks ago

Ultimately, the ACT Brumbies find themselves in the same place they finished last year. And the year before that, for that matter.

For the third straight year of Super Rugby Pacific, they’ve come up short in a semi-final played over the Tasman at the hands of a top-two New Zealand side with home ground advantage.

On one hand, they’ve again finished the season as the best Australian side and this year recorded four wins from seven outings against Kiwi opposition.

But on the other, they’ve again fallen at the same hurdle and stumbled at the year before and arguably didn’t heed the lessons they insisted would help them take the next step the following year.

Sam Darry
ACT lost to a New Zealand side in the last four for a third straight year as Blues won 34-20 in Auckland (Photo Phil Walter/Getty Images)

It’s probably a harsh assessment, but no harsher than anything they’d be asking of themselves this week.

This is familiar territory for the Brumbies in recent years.

Since they lost the 2013 final to the Chiefs in Hamilton, ACT have now lost six Super Rugby semi-finals in the 11 years since, all six of them played away from their Canberra home on account of finishing outside the top two.

All in all, the Brumbies have enjoyed more than a decade of consistent quality and achievement, albeit with limited success and silverware.

In that time they have only missed the finals series once, in 2018 when they finished 10th. There’s a couple of lost quarter-finals in there, and a couple of Super Rugby AU finals in the Covid years as well, including the 2020 title they won against the Queensland Reds which seems to have been struck from memories.

So, all in all, the Brumbies have enjoyed more than a decade of consistent quality and achievement, albeit with limited success and silverware.

So in 2024, have they had a season they should be proud of, recording another semi-final appearance that no other Australian side has managed? Or are they again disappointed that they’ve not been able to advance on the previous year?

The answer is probably both. There is certainly plenty to be proud of this season, and their 12 regular-season wins is the most they have recorded in their three-decade history.

Stephen Larkham
Head coach Stephen Larkham was left with plenty to ponder after another semi-final defeat (Photo Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

But the responses in the immediate aftermath of last Friday’s 34-20 defeat by the Blues go straight to the depth of their disappointment.

“We weren’t clinical coming out of our end,” said Brumbies skipper Allan Ala’alatoa minutes after the final whistle. “I think we gave them three balls off the kick-off receipt and they made us pay through tries.

“You can’t give a side like the Blues ascendancy at the beginning of the game, and we tried to fight hard from there, but I think they got too much of a lead at the start.”

Head coach Stephen Larkham, the first person in Super Rugby history to raise the twin benchmarks 100-plus games as both player and coach (with a winning percentage in the 60s in both columns too) was of a similar opinion.

“Small moments are pretty important in big games like this,” he told Stan Sport of the second-half chances they let slip. “I thought we were pretty good in terms of putting points on, we stuck with them through penalties at the start of the game.

“Honestly, I think it’s just the pressure they put on us with their defence on the line, and we made too many mistakes.”

Brumbies’ maul is no longer the tank, just steamrolling all the way to the try-line, but rather it’s now an aircraft carrier from which they get to the right position and only launch their attack plays when ready.

And this is where the evolution of the Brumbies under Larkham will be interesting in 2025.

In 2022, where the Brumbies dropped an Eden Park semi-final to the Blues by one excruciating point, they were playing a very set piece-structured game built around high breakdown work-rate under coaches Dan McKellar and Laurie Fisher.

Larkham took over the following season, but his vision of the Brumbies didn’t fully take hold until this season. The set-piece and breakdown platform is still there, but their biggest attacking weapon now is their ability to create opportunities from turnover and broken play, where they’re among the deadliest teams in the competition for scoring tries from line breaks and from their own half.

And the set piece and breakdown platform is still there. Darcy Swain, Charlie Cale and Nick Frost rank one-two-three for lineouts won per 80 minutes, and Cale and Swain rank first and third for lineout steals. Bench breakdown burglar Luke Reimer leads the competition for turnovers won per 80 minutes; Cale is second.

Darcy Swain
Darcy Swain was a key lineout performer for ACT but their scrum was less secure at key times (Photo Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

My 8-9 Combo Rugby Podcast co-host Harry Jones said it perfectly last week, when he noted that despite making the most ground in the competition through their maul, the Brumbies have used their lineout drive differently in 2024.

“It’s no longer the tank, just steamrolling all the way to the try-line, but rather it’s now an aircraft carrier from which they get to the right position and only launch their attack plays when ready,” he explained.

This plays out in the numbers, too. In 2022, the Brumbies scored 15 of their 62 tries from their lineout drive and had three hookers among their top 10 try-scorers.

In 2024, the lineout drive has crossed the try line just four times among 60 tries scored in total.

“We have basically achieved nothing yet, and we have talked about that,” Larkham said matter-of-factly after the quarter-final win over the Highlanders, when discussing their run of lost semi-finals. You sense this will be the key motivation going forward.

So, what will be the 2024 lessons the Brumbies need to heed in 2025?

Ala’alatoa spoke of not being clinical enough in the first 20 minutes last Friday night, but that has been an issue all year, where only two teams recorded fewer than their four bonus points.

Corey Toole
Brumbies’ lack of a clinical edge came back to haunt them again against Blues (Photo Michael Bradley/AFP via Getty Images)

Despite winning their last six games straight leading into the finals, the Brumbies posted just one bonus point after their Round 8 bye, the 36-point win over the Melbourne Rebels in Canberra in the second-last round.

In their wins over the Fijian Drua (Round 11), NSW Waratahs (R12), the Crusaders (R13), and Western Force (R15), they did the same thing four times: got themselves into position to push for the bonus point within the opening period of the second half, only to let the opposition come back at them and remove the opportunity.

Add those four bonus points to their final tally, and the Brumbies would have finished ahead of the Blues and played their semi-final in Canberra instead of Auckland.

That is going to be where the disappointment overrides any sense of pride. They finished on the same number of wins as the top two teams but could, and probably should, easily have tallied more competition points.

They’re the best team in Australia again, but still have nothing to show for it. And that’s got to sting for the eight months between now and the start of the 2025 season.

Home ground advantage is everything in Super Rugby, and bonus points acquired or lost can absolutely be the difference. The Brumbies know this, because lost BPs have cost them table position in the last two seasons alone.

They have made gains, but despite their counter-attacking tendencies, they still kicked more than most teams and set the fewest number of rucks. They clearly played at the right end of the field. They also played narrower, but like the Chiefs, played to the open side more than 90% of the time.

Like the Chiefs, the Brumbies similarly missed just two of 20-plus penalty goal attempts, and Damian McKenzie and Noah Lolesio were locked in a two-horse race to be the competition’s leading points-scorer and most accurate from the kicking tee. McKenzie prevailed on both counts.

But they’ve lost another semi-final. They’re the best team in Australia again, but still have nothing to show for it.

And that’s got to sting for the eight months between now and the start of the 2025 season.

Comments

13 Comments
M
Mzilikazi 22 days ago

A very disappointing end to SRP for the Brumbies and the Reds. Both failed to start well in their knockout games and were left with mountains to climb very early.

The Brumbies first exit is illuminating. Kick off fielded well, ball carried into contact, ruck, Lonergan box kicks reasonably, with Toole the first chaser. He is not in a position to challenge Plummer in the air, but is superbly positioned to make a strong tackle as Plummer lands. He fails to make the easiest of all tackles, even seems unsure what to do, and ends up allowing Plummer a good carry. Blues then score after phases at about 1.49 mins. It is these details that the NZ teams do efficiently that sees them exert telling pressure.

“Larkham took over the following season(2023), but his vision of the Brumbies didn’t fully take hold until this season”. An interesting observation, Brett. And one would hope that next season sees a settling into the Larkham systems. If not, then I would fear pressure will build on him as a chief coach. I hope not, and the front row issues can be overcome, and the little details that in total build towards wining games, especially knockouts, can be achieved.

S
SadersMan 22 days ago

best of a bad bunch ho hum

B
Bill 22 days ago

Brett you can’t drop the ball from the kickoff 3 times in first 15 mins and expect to win. I get the first one, nerves bit tight, but the next 2 . My advice to the Brumbies go and hire out Eden Park for a couple of pre season games, once you win a couple there you’ll be fine

M
Mitch 22 days ago

If it’s any consolation to the Brumbies, I see them having the dubious honour of losing a semi final to the eventual champions.

S
Shaylen 22 days ago

The Brumbies have been the strongest side in Australia for a long time and that was down to their forwards and set piece which has always been good and has always been able to dominate their Australian counterparts. This year the lack of maul tries and also the lack of a stable scrum has been a real problem which was also something Nick alluded to in his article this week about the creaking brumbies tight five. Home advantage is key as you say and the Brumbies must find a way to score more bonus points. If the Brumbies are really serious about winning a title they need to do what Kiwi sides at the top do. They need to smash every Aus side with a bonus point at home while claiming losing bonus points in every game they lose and denying their rivals bonus points. In their 3 losses in NZ this year they were smashed. They only scored 60 tries which is middle of the road, their scrum came in at 73% which was one of the worst in the comp, tackle success at just 83% which was right at the bottom and in terms of metres, clean breaks, carries, offloads and rucks built they were in the middle plus they had the most yellows. They basically were just not dominant enough wile they can improve their discipline. They excelled at kicking and won plenty of lineout ball plus their rucks were secure at 97%. Not sure about turnovers but they weren’t bad there. They just need to be more clinical and give away less and they will give themselves the best chance to win the title.

D
Don M 22 days ago

Fair overview Brett. Not sure where they go to from here. Obviously they need more grunt up front. Some key guys leaving. A bit of ‘cool, calm and collected’ missing at key moments against the Blues. Why? I think that made a difference.

j
jacques 23 days ago

Being the best Australian team is like being the smartest kid in the speacial needs class.

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