With Super Rugby now just days away, we preview each of the teams in the competition ahead of the new season. Next up, the Brumbies.
Still Australia’s most successful Super Rugby franchise, but the Brumbies now have the Waratahs snapping at their heels after seeing their Sydney rivals claim a maiden title last year.
It was good effort from the men from Canberra, who reached the semi-finals despite losing skipper and insiprational flanker David Pocock for the second straight season.
They also coped well without Jake White, but there is more change on the coaching front this season with Laurie Fisher now plying his trade in England. Stephen Larkham now has to prove he’s the man who can keep the Brumbies as contenders.
Last Year: A regression was expected last year after White’s departure, but the Brumbies were a force once more, overcoming an opening defeat to the Reds to get all the way to the semi-finals.
They finished the regular season fourth overall, second in the Australian conference, but after a strong start which saw them up in second place after 14 rounds of competition, they faded and eventually needed a win over the Force on the final day to reach the play-offs.
Having made it, they knocked off the two-time defending champion Chiefs in a thriller in Canberra, before being well-beaten in the semi-finals against the Waratahs. While the 26-8 scoreline overstates the difference between the teams – the Tahs scored ten points in the last ten minutes – the Brumbies were not quite as good as the team that reached the final a year earlier.
As they had the previous season, the Brumbies built their success on an exciting back division, with the likes of Tevita Kuridrani and Henry Speight only improving with another season under their belts. Only the Waratahs scored more tries, but the fact they only picked up four try bonus points showed an inability to really cut loose at times.
This year: Larkham will have a tricky start to the new season as he tries to cope with the loss of a couple of key individuals over the off-season.
Ben Mowen is the biggest name to depart, and his absence will certainly be felt in the Brumbies pack, while the retirement of Pat McCabe is another blow for the team, albeit one they’ve had plenty of time to prepare for.
The return of Pocock, if he can stay fit, should have a huge impact though. Given the ease with which Michael Hooper has stepped up for the Wallabies, it’s easy to forget quite how good the Brumbies vice captain really is.
Stephen Moore is also hoping to be ready for the start of the new season, and it would be a real boost to have the skipper back after his torn ACL ended his last campaign.
The schedule has done the Brumbies few favours, with four away trips in their first six games before an early bye. Having said that, their late season games against potential play-off rivals in the Bulls and the Crusaders, are both at home.
Key Players: How can it not be David Pocock? When he first did his cruciate ligament before the Lions tour in 2013, there was a case for him being the most influential player in the game. At the breakdown he had arguably surpassed even the great Richie McCaw as a turnover king, and he’ll be desperate to prove he’s lost none of that ability.
Still, back to back ACL tears rarely bode well, and while it would be sad, it would hardly be surprising if he’s lost a step over the last two seasons. The Brumbies will be hoping that’s not the case, after all Pocock has only played five games for them in the two seasons he’s been at the club since a move from the Western Force.
Having been in the headlines for his involvement in a coal-mining protest, Pocock was able to put that behind him this week as he avoided any further action after his initial arrest, and he is on track to be fit for the start of the new season.
Players to watch: While Pocock will grab most of the headlines, the man who has really stepped up in his absence has been Scott Fardy. Capable of playing in both the second row and the back row, Fardy provides a real physical presence and adds a steel to the Brumbies pack.
In the backs, a lot will again come down to the playmaking combination of Matt Toomua and Christian Leali’ifano. Capable of mixing and matching between 10 and 12, they will be charged with getting the Brumbies backline flowing. With the likes of Kuridrani, Speight and Joe Tomane outside them, there is plenty of firepower if they can create some space.
Finally, it will be impossible to miss new second row Rory Arnold, who joins Andries Bekker as the tallest player in the history of Super Rugby. It remains to be seen if he can make a similar impact to Will Skelton with the Waratahs, but the 24-year-old should at the very least offer a go-to option in the lineout.
Prospects: Having finished in the top four in each of the last two seasons, the Brumbies will fancy their chances of at least reaching the play-offs again this season.
The loss of Mowen and McCabe will hurt them, but a fully fit Pocock has the potential to more than make up for that. Their backline remains one of the most dangerous in the competition, while up front, their first choice front five looks strong.
Depth is more of an issue though, and they look less well-equipped than a year ago if they do lose any key forwards for an extended period.
If they can stay relatively healthy, there is certainly the potential for them to threaten the best teams and they look a reasonable bet to get back to the play-offs again. Play-off bound.
Players in: Nigel Ah-Wong (Coca Cola Red Sparks), James Dargaville (Sydney Stars), Sean Doyle (Ulster), Blake Enever (Queensland Country), Rory Arnold (Canberra Vikings), Les Makin (Canberra Vikings)
Players out: Ruaidhri Murphy, Leon Power, Jack Whetton, Tom McVerry, Lachlan McCaffrey, Ben Mowen, Conrad Hoffman, Lionel Cronje, Pat McCabe, Andrew Smith, Clyde Rathbone
Fri, 13 Feb vs Reds (GIO Stadium, Canberra)
Fri, 20 Feb vs Chiefs (Yarrow Stadium, New Plymouth)
Sat, 28 Feb vs Rebels (AAMI Park, Melbourne)
Fri, 6 March vs Force (GIO Stadium, Canberra)
Sat, 14 March vs Reds (Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane)
Sun, 22 March vs Waratahs (ANZ Stadium, Sydney)
Round 7: BYE
Sat, 4 April vs Cheetahs (GIO Stadium, Canberra)
Fri, 10 April vs Blues (Eden Park, Auckland)
Sat, 18 April vs Rebels (GIO Stadium, Canberra)
Fri, 24 April vs Highlanders (GIO Stadium, Canberra)
Fri, 1 May vs Waratahs (GIO Stadium, Canberra)
Sat, 9 May vs Stormers (Newlands Stadium, Cape Town)
Sat, 16 May v Lions (Emirates Airline Park, Johannesburg)
Round 15: BYE
Fri, 29 May vs Bulls (GIO Stadium, Canberra)
Fri, 5 June vs Force (nib Stadium, Perth)
Sat, 13 June vs Crusaders (GIO Stadium, Canberra)