There was jubilation at GIO Stadium in Canberra on Saturday night after the Brumbies beat the Queensland Reds 28-23 to lift the Super Rugby AU trophy. Ecstatic Brumbies players rolled around on the grass hugging each other in celebratory embraces as coach Dan McKellar was doused with a tub full of water. The players belted out their team song with gusto.
Scenes like that had not been witnessed at the stadium since the Brumbies defeated the Crusaders in the Super Rugby final in 2004. But this achievement needs to be put into perspective or Australian rugby will be in danger of forming a false self-image.
Good luck to the Brumbies, who were deserved winners. While the final did not reach any peaks of excellence, it was certainly a riveting contest. But there was no comparison to the ACT side’s two previous title victories in 2004 and 2001. Back then, the Brumbies had to beat the best of New Zealand and South Africa to win a high-quality competition, which could be rightly regarded as a major achievement for an Australian sporting team.
But this year the Brumbies are the champions of a five-team competition, involving only Australian teams. One of those teams, the Western Force, who were axed by Rugby Australia in 2017, were a late call-up to make up the numbers for the domestic competition after the multi-national Super Rugby tournament was shut down earlier in the year by the coronavirus pandemic. They did not win a game.
Another team, the NSW Waratahs, were in a re-building phase, almost resembling an under-20s side. There was a lot of praise for the Melbourne Rebels reaching their first ever Super Rugby finals, having come third in a five-team competition. Perhaps a little perspective is needed.
While the standard of play in Super Rugby AU improved slightly during the course of the competition, it was nowhere near the level of New Zealand’s Super Rugby Aotearoa, which produced exceptionally high-quality and high-intensity rugby. The Crusaders were crowned New Zealand champions after finishing first in a first-past-the-post format. There is little likelihood the Brumbies would have beaten the Crusaders if the two title-holders had faced off, although we will never know for sure.
Still, a team can only play the opposition that is placed before it and the Brumbies maintained their reputation as Australia’s most successful team. The early front-runners of the competition, the Brumbies dipped towards the end of the regular season before regaining their mojo for the final in Canberra where they are a very hard team to beat.
The Brumbies’ attack was sharper, their lineout superior and they competed hard at the breakdown, an area some commentators thought the Reds would have a decisive advantage. The only aspect of play the Reds dominated was the scrum. Some of the young Reds seemed over-stimulated at the start of the game, but they did show a lot of grit to come back from 28-13 down to set up a grand-stand finish.
One of the main reasons the Brumbies reversed their recent loss to the Reds in Brisbane was the return from injury of promising five-eighth Noah Lolesio, who controlled the game in a man-of-the match performance. Lolesio showed tremendous poise for a 20-year-old and would not be out of place in the gold No 10 jersey when the Wallabies play the All Blacks in the first Bledisloe Cup Test on 11 October, out-pointing his main rival James O’Connor in the final.
Wallabies coach Dave Rennie selected 16 uncapped players in his initial 44-man national squad and is believed to be keen to see what some of the younger players can do at the next level. A number of young players such as number eight Harry Wilson, openside flanker Fraser McReight and five-eighth Will Harrison will be pressing for selection.
A lot of Australia’s rookies would have gained confidence playing in Super Rugby AU in the absence of competition from New Zealand and South African teams, but the danger is they might be getting ahead of themselves. Rennie needs the Wallabies, and the younger players in particular, to believe in themselves, but there is a fine line between confidence and over-confidence. It feels good to win a final or play in the play-offs, but Australia’s players may have a false sense of security.
It would be risky to throw young players into a Test against the All Blacks before they were ready, but at least they would know where they were really at. And that’s something Rennie needs to find out.
The Wallabies are ranked seventh in the world. They are unlikely to rocket up the rankings overnight. And it will also take time for Australia’s Super Rugby teams to develop so that they are not only capable of beating each other, but able to beat the best of the best, just like the Brumbies used to do. That would be something to celebrate.