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FEATURE How the 'un-Australian' Brumbies are flying the flag in Super Rugby

How the 'un-Australian' Brumbies are flying the flag in Super Rugby
2 weeks ago

Peel the layers of the onion, look beyond the sentimental mist of the marketing blurb, the blag about Australian improvement and the opportunities presented by the Fijian Drua and Moana Pasifika expansions, and you are presented with a stark reality: another year has passed, but not a lot has changed in Super Rugby.

When push comes to shove, the knockout stages of the competition remain exactly what they have been in the recent past: a competition between the top three heavyweights from the Shaky Isles, with the Brumbies from the Australian Capital Territory sprinkled on, a giddy frisson for a round or two. It is a case of ‘as you were’, with no radical change in the offing.

There has been only one winner of the tournament from outside New Zealand in the last ten years, and that was the Waratahs back in 2014. Since then, it has been a procession of Kiwi victories, and the NZRU takes the lion’s share of the money. It harvests triple the broadcasting revenue of Rugby Australia from the televising of the competition.

When the New Zealand union insisted only two teams from Australia be included for the first post-Covid reset in 2021, maybe it was on to something. Maybe ex-RA chairman Hamish McLennan was deadly serious when he hinted at a move towards an all-domestic competition across the Tasman too:

“We will honour our commitments in 2023, but we need to see what is best for rugby in Australia leading up to the Rugby World Cup in Australia in 2027. All bets are off from 2024 onwards with New Zealand.”

Is Super Rugby Pacific treading water, or falling into a dark crevasse? Can it maintain its international credibility, with South Africa leaving for the north in frustration and no sign of a true challenger to New Zealand? Will broadcasters continue to buy into a sporting event where the outcome looks and feels so predictable?

When Brumbies head coach Stephen Larkham addressed the press room after his club’s 32-16 quarter-final win over the Highlanders, which booked a date the Blues at Eden Park, he could have been talking about the future of the tournament as well as the immediate outlook for his charges.

The Brumbies outgunned the Hurricanes to set up a Super Rugby Pacific trip to Auckland and the Blues (Photo by TRACEY NEARMY/AFP via Getty Images)

“We have been in this situation [before] in the last couple of years,” the former Wallaby fly-half said. “In 2022, we played the Blues in the semi-final and we lost right at the end of the game [20-19]. We lost last year in the semi-final [to the Chiefs].

“We have basically achieved nothing yet, and we have talked about that.

“We have played over there [at Eden Park] once already [this season] and it did not work for us [the Brumbies were thrashed 46-7 by the Blues in SRP round nine]. We need to get everything right in terms of our recovery and preparation to give ourselves the best chance.”

Larkham finished by shifting the conversation on to the hopes for an Australian resurgence.

“There has been a massive improvement in the other Australian teams this year, but we are going over [to Eden Park], and we are not really thinking about the other Australian franchises.

“We are going over there as a Brumbies outfit to do a better job than the last time were there.”

The Brumbies have been the most successful Australian Super Rugby franchise for as long as anyone can remember, and they have achieved their success largely by ignoring what the rest of Australia is doing. Only when Aussie pricked up its ears and took notice, with Canberra assistants Dan McKellar and Lord Laurie Fisher reunited on the 2022 end-of-year tour under Kiwi head coach Dave Rennie, have the Wallabies threatened to turn over the top sides in the world.

If there is one word that describes the men from Canberra – including the people shaping the philosophy behind the scenes – it is ‘pragmatic’.  It might even be un-Australian – not that it would worry them. They don’t play beyond their means and put pressure on their ability to keep the ball, building the fewest rucks per game of any team in SRP [76] with the lowest average ruck-speed [3.5 seconds]. They kick more than any of the other Australian teams and only the Western Force averaged less time spent in possession in 2024.

They will be the diametric opposites of the Blues team they encounter this Friday. Vern Cotter’s charges thrive on building momentum by multiplying rucks and carries [1st in the competition on both counts] and ramping up the ruck speed [2.9 seconds] in the process. On that sodden Saturday evening back in April, the Blues’ game was more than enough to sweep their opponents from the Capital Territory away. If they had kept going, the Brumbies would have ended up in the Auckland waterfront.

The gimlet-eyed misfits from the ACT will give their opponents as little free opportunity as possible this time around. In the quarter-final, when the home side found themselves on the receiving end at scrum time, giving up six penalties, they balanced the books by pilfering five Highlanders lineout throws.

Especially if the weather is as wet as it was on 20 April, the kicking game will be pivotal. It is in this area that the visitors can make hay, even if the sun is not shining. All aspects of the Canberra kicking game, but most particularly the contestable high kicking game, is pulled off the top shelf in quality terms.

Against the Highlanders, the Brumbies won back six of the 10 contestable kicks they launched, winning two penalties and scoring a try in the process.

Their strapping new number 8 forward Charlie Cale wins most plaudits for his highlight-reel work on attack.

 

Cale is the penultimate link in the chain of attack wide right, delivering the money pass for Andy Muirhead. But in the Brumbies template, his raw speed and athletic ability are as important – if not more so – for the value they add to his work from the same position on kick-chase.

 

 

On chase, it is like having an extra back in the line, but one with the added bonus of a telescopic reach. The great benefit from an Australian point of view, is  Cale’s talent will be solidly grounded in a repeated insistence on the everyday, humdrum necessities of the game. In the Brumbies system, wing Corey Toole is required to kick as well he can break or finish a move.

Likewise, full-back Tom Wright.

 

Why bother running the ball back, however skilled you are, when you can kick the 50/22, and get a lineout throw deep in the opposition 22 instead?

The man on the other edge, ponytailed Andy Muirhead may not have been blessed with the God-given talents [or fashion-sense] of a Max Jorgenson or a Joseph Amakuso-Sua’ali’i, but at this level he is mightily effective at what he does. The vast majority of reclaims in the air were won on Muirhead’s side of the field – and even when the kick went too long, he could be relied upon to make the first tackle on his own.

 

It may be a small detail in the grubby grey area of the game, but if Muirhead does not make that upfield one-on-one tackle on chase the next man up will be ‘triple A’, and the kick return will be most definitely be ‘on’ for the Highlanders.

The apogée of Brumbies pragmatism and the Canberra view of the game came in the 47th and 48th minutes.

 

 

Why bother to pass or even catch the ball, when you can travel over 60 metres up the field and over the try line, in the space of just three kicks? No miracle pick-up for Muirhead at the end of the play, just dribble the ball on, then fall on it to score. And the man closest to him in support? That’s right, it would be the fastest forward in the Capital Territory, or for that matter anywhere else in Australia, Cale.

Is Super Rugby becoming too predictable, and just plain boring at the pointy end of the competition? Quite possibly. You can guarantee the presence of three provinces from New Zealand at the semi-final stage; equally, the Brumbies will make it to the last four, by hook or by crook. It is enough to make you wonder whether Australian rugby should follow in the footsteps of Aussie Rules or  league, and look towards an all-domestic product.

The men from Canberra get there not by playing sponsor-alluring rugby ball in hand, but by kicking and chasing and blasting away in the white-hot furnace of the contact zone. Maybe there is a lesson or two in there for Joe Schmidt, if has not already learned them on his travels.

Will it be enough to catapult the Brumbies to the first Super Rugby final since 2013 next weekend? Probably not. Nothing exemplifies New Zealand’s hold on competition south of equator quite like the Eden Park hoodoo, and the strength of that grip is nigh-impossible to break, for better or worse.

Comments

104 Comments
A
Adrian 10 days ago

Having watched it last night, I’m not sure that the Brumby style is the answer.

For mine, they were steamrolled by a team that barely got out of second gear.

I don't think it was caused by the style or their strategy, but simply by an opposition pack that was all over them.

We (Australia) have to find a tight 5 from other teams and OS. AAA would only just sneak in, and Frost for the bench.

I'd have to say, that not picking OS players for Wales is risky. ie no Sio and Skeleton in the pack.

Same for guys heading OS but available (eg Swinton)

Loops like Valetini, LSL, Tuopo, Rodda, Uelese will have a lot to do.

At least they are big enough to do it.

A
Ardy 12 days ago

I agree with Larkham’s statement about the Brumbies that they are ‘pragmatic’ and being realistic allows them to be competitive and the best team in Australia. The coaching of the Tahs looking to beef up rather than speed up, the Reds with all the skills but hate travelling away from Old, ditto the Force but without all the skills the Reds have. The Rebels playing South African rugby for most of the season and ensuring Gordon got little ball and well away from the Ad Line looked like something from 10 years ago in S.A.
Losing Carter Gordon along with the Rebels is not a good sign for our rugby and Schmidt’s task, already a big ask has just got harder.
I am hoping the Brumbies go all the way this year but have not picked them in my comp.

J
Jez Nez 13 days ago

Nice one NB.

Domestic is the way.

Cale looks a great prospect.

Makes me lament the weight gain they asked Gleeson to add, he was even faster before they had him bulk up.

Hope Langi can get his speed, nimbleness and fitness back. He’s not the player he was when first selected

N
Nick 13 days ago

Nice piece Nick and as you say for all the changes, everything stays the same. Brumbies play a style that keeps them in alot of games (a la SA) and they have learnt well how to eek out wins even though they rarely blow teams away. It was a shame to see the reds go out the way they did but probably the typical aus side in that regard - world beaters for 20 minutes, mediocre for 30 and somewhere in the middle for the rest. I assume Joe would like to play like the reds and has trained sides to do so in the past, but the brumbies way may be more pragmatic and easier to implement at least in the short term. If he is smart, he will devise a system that can start simple and then be built on. Cale is impressive and has very much filled the samu sized hole with the hope of bigger things to come. Muirhead very much unheralded and I’d have him closer to a gold jumper than most. Two questions - Where did the reds go wrong and need to improve? I think the answer may be similar for the wallabies also. and, how do you think noah is going? I think most people would agree he is the top of the pile based on his tee kicking alone for the gold 10, but how does he fair to those he will actually be playing against come the intl window? Has he improved and is he taking more control of games?

D
Derek Murray 14 days ago

I want a meaningful win by an Australian rugby team at Eden Park before I die. I reckon we’ve got 15/20 years, tops. Cmon Brums

M
Mitch 14 days ago

Now that the Reds are out, I've jumped on the Brumbies bandwagon. I’m worried about the Brumbies scrum and their ability to handle the physicality of the Blues, who are good at keeping the ball but also play in such a direct manner that will sap the energy of the Brumbies.

The Brums were unlucky against their semi against the Blues 2 years ago, competitive but 2nd best against the Chiefs last year but I fear a repeat of the round robin game between the Blues and the Brumbies.

J
Jon 14 days ago

the blag about Australian improvement and the opportunities presented by the Fijian Drua and Moana Pasifika expansions
This is something the new committee needs to keep on top of. I have not seen any improvement from, what is now a largely NZR run, SANZAARs (pretty sure this version of rugby still comes under that remit) running of the Sunwolves, Jaguares, and the other teams. Where is the evolution in these setups you have mentioned? Sunwolves were going great (Tokyo’s 20k supporter group are what the Rebels said that would need to be sustainable) but ultimately untenable when JRLO was proposing taking up their schedule. UAR were possibly too ruthless, ensuring success by using similar eligibility criteria to that of 5 team setup NZ. What is on the horizon for Moana and Drua?
They were both supposed to use high performance pathways, and revenue on International attraction to raise their performance levels year on year. It’s been 3 years now right? It feels that year after year MP lose their best players. Who have the Drua signed back from their long list of International stars? I’m not saying they haven’t done what was set out as their purpose, simply that, again, there is this apparent loss of visibility about whats happening. Because lets be honest, they are simply not here on the basis of their performances alone. How many Miracle’s are we supposed to see each year, 1? 2? .5? Keeping the likes of Leali’ifano and Kepu playing here, and with a real purpose, is great, but for me, I haven’t seen enough.

Is Super Rugby Pacific treading water, or falling into a dark crevasse? Can it maintain its international credibility, with South Africa leaving for the north in frustration and no sign of a true challenger to New Zealand? Will broadcasters continue to buy into a sporting event where the outcome looks and feels so predictable?
Those two options are mutually exclusive. It would be very easy to have the two state sides, with, what, 80% of the country’s players available to them, compete in a 10 team SR comp, and then have all the other players in a parallel local comp. Hell, you could just pull out 23 Reds or Waratahs each week from these comps and say, now your playing SR this week son. And as theres no credibility to be had from offshore broadcasters in todays TV environment, it doesn’t matter what is chosen as the product right at the minute. I don’t even think a much improved SA conference would budge networks from keeping their hands in the pockets this time. The money is simply not their anymore. That’s not to say that a Hawaii team shouldn’t be one that replaces the Brumbies in SR though. Their absolutely needs to be a similar commitment towards the game or rugby itself that was shown last time WR tried to take a massive stride. Currently Australia is a b@rstard case, with its NSW and QL teams along side Melbourne and Perth. Fix their makeup. NZ is regional, so should Aus be.
What should happen, and this has been a factor for NZ in a few other cases, is they should separate the product and share the revenue. It will probably result in the same payment we have seen already, and have a very bad face, but the game now needs it’s credibility in anyway it can.

Mark Robinson was on TV in the weekend and, amongst the scripted questions, was trying to say things are actually pretty good while at the same time struggling to grasp the idea, or picture, that things should be better. Of course it’s fine to go on as we are, Aus is making strides, Kiss and Cron should surpass the performance of their predecessors, and NSW will be good with Cheika or Friend. But Robinson was trying to make the point that all this is not being done in the most constructive environment, and I’m sure thats the case for Australian rugby as well. It doesn’t need reform to fix, it just needs action!

This article raises some interesting factors do this idea of a credible TV viewing experience. The lowest average ruck speed is 3 and a half seconds? Isn’t this rather average? Or did the editor auto correct incorrectly? Is there a marker for NH style rugby from the Brumbies? Judging from their crowds you wouldn’t think so but what if they had a Bath style 8k ground?

You can guarantee the presence of three provinces from New Zealand at the semi-final stage; equally, the Brumbies will make it to the last four, by hook or by crook.
Ultimately this author makes the same mistake many have been critized for in the past, looking at the competition as if its a national team. Who can blame him though when, again, Robinson described its purpose as making players ready for International rugby. That the 3 teams are a different 3 teams to what has been seen recently is completely overlooked by ‘this author’, they could be Munster, Stormers, Benneton, or they could be Hurricanes, Blues, and Chiefs, it matters nothing when viewed from an externally neutral viewpoint. They are, simply, a very different ladder to last year. That one country still dominates is irrelevant.
Was time to go back to the original one-and-done posting strategy, apologies.

d
d 14 days ago

Thanks Nick. Very proud of the brumbies even though also disappointed for the two other Aussie teams this weekend. Using the kick in an effective way is great to see. Will they use a similar method against the blues do you think?

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Adrian 15 days ago

A good analysis Nick, and pretty accurate from what I can see as a casual observer.

The Brumbies seem to work out ways of “managing” their deficiencies better than most sides. Their scrum/front row is certainly a major issue, yet somehow they survived.

I hope Slipper plays the semi v the Blues, notwithstanding that it may wreck him for the rest of the year!

I suppose that Brumbie tactics could be a template for the Wallabies, but my preference is that it’s a plan B or C, behind other tactics involving super fast ruck ball and/or plenty of front foot ball generated by big dynamic runners. I think that having more than one game plan is probably within Schmidt’s capability.

Hopefully we have the players to be able to deliver some options, but I’m not confident of the big heavy runners option because of injury (Bell), a stated reluctance to pick OS players (Skeleton), and unfit players (Tuopo). This effects the halfbacks you use (and don't use).

If Australia play the Brumbies style (and I’m not opposed to it), it keeps White in the mix and adds Lonergan I think. Lolesio fits too.

If the Blues blast them off the park though, I may well reconsider.

T
Tom 15 days ago

Great read Nick. Thought the shift to more contested kicking in the second half was an encouraging show of nous from the Brums. Hopefully that same nous has been applied in review of the previous game and forthcoming strategy for the Blues this weekend. Was there anything to learn from how the Crusaders got over them and the Reds pushed them? Or is it just apples and oranges and the Brums must play their own game? Brumbies certainly ain’t going to bully them at scrum time.

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