Blues v Brumbies: Five takeaways as Vern Cotter’s side take the Springboks approach to knockout rugby

Colin Newboult
Blues celebrate Hoskins Sotutu try v Brumbies in 2024 Super Rugby Pacific.

Blues celebrate Hoskins Sotutu try v Brumbies in 2024 Super Rugby Pacific.

Following the Blues’ 34-20 victory over the Brumbies, here are our five takeaways from the Super Rugby Pacific semi-final in Auckland.

Top line

The Blues are back in the Super Rugby Pacific final for the first time since 2022 after their dominant first half laid the platform for an ultimately comfortable win over the Brumbies.

Vern Cotter’s men overwhelmed their opponents physically and that was evidenced by their first quarter performance. The set-piece was on top while they bullied the Australians on the gain line, resulting in early tries for AJ Lam, Ricky Riccitelli, Sam Darry and Caleb Clarke.

Noah Lolesio provided the visitors’ sole response with a pair of three-pointers before Rob Valetini touched down to reduce the arrears to 27-13 at the interval.

Ultimately, it was too big a gap for Stephen Larkham’s side to bridge. They were valiant, while their work ethic and intensity could not be doubted, especially in the second period, but the hosts were simply too powerful and well-drilled.

Hoskins Sotutu eventually sealed their fate to equal the record for tries scored by a forward in a single Super Rugby season, although Luke Reimer did give the Brumbies something to cheer late on.

Physicality difference

Cotter has been around the higher echelons of club and international rugby for nearly two decades now and his experience in the tense knockout matches showed today.

His Blues side not only rose to the trademark physical challenge that the Brumbies pose but dominated it with his charges regularly winning the gain line and breakdown battle.

It was a brutal showing from centres AJ Lam and Rieko Ioane while tactically they were on point in getting the ball into the hands of the imposing frame of Caleb Clarke, but really, the game was won up front.

Dalton Papali’i landed big hit after big hit on defence and was ably assisted by young lock Josh Beehre and departing loose forward Akira Ioane.

Whenever the Brumbies attempted to find a route back into the fixture, they were firmly met by an abrasive blue wall that simply outmuscled them in every facet of the game.

Blues’ South African approach

Cotter is renowned for producing hard-nosed teams akin to the South African approach, which was evident yet again on Friday. During the last two World Cup successes, the Springboks have been quite happy to kick to the opposition, apply pressure and back their defence.

The template for the Blues’ success over the Brumbies was largely the same, contesting every kick superbly, putting the Aussie backfield under immense pressure, and forcing error after error from kick-off, scrum and lineout.

The Blues comfortably made 50 more tackles than their Australian counterparts, with Valetini breaching their line in the 35th minute and Reimer when the game was beyond reach.

Still, the similarities to the Springboks did not stop there, with the Blues pack muscling up in the scrum and treating it as an opportunity to apply pressure, penalties and mental fatigue on the Brumbies, and it clearly worked.

The ability to deal with and apply pressure in knockout games is crucial, and the Blues did both brilliantly, making it a rather one-sided battle with the scoreline flattering the visitors.

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Can the Blues finally deliver?

It is remarkable for a franchise the size of the Blues that it is over two decades since they last won a proper Super Rugby title. We are discounting the Super Rugby Trans-Tasman victory in 2021, which was created after Covid hit, leaving the 2003 success as their previous triumph.

In total, they have lifted the trophy three times – in 1996, 1997 and ‘03 – when ‘King’ Carlos Spencer was directing proceedings at fly-half. Since then, it has been a series of disappointments. That is until Leon MacDonald took charge and led them to the Super Rugby Pacific final in 2022, where they eventually lost to the Crusaders.

MacDonald has left to join Scott Robertson’s coaching staff at the All Blacks but his replacement, the hugely experienced Cotter, has continued his fine work. They are now a highly effective all-round unit, from one to 15, with their set-piece and forward play matching the talent in the backline.

Despite finishing lower in the table than in 2022 – where they topped the standings before succumbing in the final – the Blues look much more prepared this year to take that last step and finally win the title.

Brumbies fail to bridge gap

The Brumbies are by some distance the leading side in Australia but their defeat in this fixture showed, once again, that they are still lagging behind New Zealand’s best teams in Super Rugby Pacific.

This is the third successive year that the Canberra-based outfit have been the only team from Australia to represent that country in Super Rugby Pacific’s semi-finals and also the third time they have been knocked out at this stage of the tournament by New Zealand opposition, after also losing to the Blues in 2022 and the Chiefs in 2023.

In Friday’s clash against the Aucklanders, the Brumbies came off second best in most facets of play, especially in the opening half, and although they showed improvement in the second period, the home side held an edge throughout and the result showed the superiority New Zealand teams still have.

READ MORE: Hoskins Sotutu equals Springbok’s Super Rugby record as Blues hammer Brumbies to secure all-New Zealand final