We’re past halfway in the 2011 SupeRugby season, and it’s time to have a look at how the Brumbies have fared so far.
They boasted a competitive roster coming into 2011, but it’s fair to say the Brumbies have massively underachieved in a season that, once again, promised so much and has delivered very little.
With only two wins to date — and unconvincing ones at that — the Brumbies have sputtered their way from week to week. Nobody has been debating whether they’ll win or lose; instead, the critics are asking “how much will they get beaten by this week?”
So let’s break it down and try to analyse why the Brumbies have reached this low point.
There had been rumours of discontent within the ranks relating to a misunderstanding between the players and head coach Andy Friend during the pre-season. Adjustments had been made to clear things up, including the appointment of Stephen Larkham to the panel of assistant coaches, but the wheels finally fell off after the Round 2 loss to the Rebels in Melbourne.
Friend was summoned to the table by CEO Andrew Fagan and given his marching orders, and defensive coach Tony Rea was installed in his place for the remainder of the season.Since that point the Brumbies have had just one win – an unimpressive 1-point victory over the struggling Hurricanes – and seven defeats.
Late in April the news broke that Fagan had secured former Springbok coach Jake White’s services for 2012 and beyond (more on that shortly). It’s good news in the longer term, but it can only have undermined Rea’s status and made it that much harder for him to direct and drive the players for the remainder of his tenure.
The Brumbies still boast an all-Wallaby front row and the scrum has put on some good displays at times. The question of which side of the scrum to play Ben Alexander on has been raised again, and not resolved. It’s an issue that could be detrimental to his Wallaby career in this World Cup year. New recruit Dan Palmer has been a revelation at tight-head. He’s been promoted above Wallaby Salesi Ma’afu and has shown experience beyond his years in that position.
Second-rowers Mark Chisholm and Ben Hand have been a little below their best, sometimes struggling to make an impact in the big games. The injuries to Mitchell Chapman, who runs the lineout calls, and to hookers Stephen Moore and Huia Edmonds, have hampered the lineout and taken away one of the Brumbies’ traditional strengths.
For me, however, the big find has been No. 8 Ita Vaea, who was actually a surprise inclusion in the senior ranks when injury ruled out captain Stephen Hoiles for the early part of the season. The Tongan’s strong running reminds everyone of Toutai Kefu and has been one of the few highlights this season.
Peter Kimlin has been playing himself into form after missing most of the last 18 months with a variety of injuries. His showing against the Cheetahs was one of his best performances and he’ll be pushing for a starting spot for the rest of 2011.
Injuries have sidelined the other key loose forwards: Hoiles and Rocky Elsom are expected to miss the rest of the season. Hoiles managed to play about 40 minutes, while Elsom hasn’t even donned his Brumbies colours this year. The absence of these experienced heads has been very obvious and very costly at times.
The Brumbies backline has been a shadow of its former glorious self this year, even with Wallabies Matt Giteau and Adam Ashley-Cooper in leadership roles and favourite son Larkham involved as attack coach.
Giteau has had his fair share of critics and the debate over his best position is unending, but it must be said that he has been one of the better performers, and has really tried to get his team firing. He could have been a passenger after announcing his move to Toulon after this season but he’s still giving 100 per cent. But it appears that the burden of being the captain, goal-kicker and playmaker has been hindering his play. The fact that there seems to be a different player outside him each week hasn’t helped either.
Ashley-Cooper’s role in the sacking of Andy Friend brought him some scrutiny and criticism that he would have preferred to avoid, and then his protracted contract negotiations seemed to prey on his mind and affect his play. The flair and impact that the Earl put on show for the Wallabies in the 2010 EOYT seem a distant memory, and he’s another player whose best position and attack role have been rendered uncertain by numerous shifts around the backline. He’s heading to the Waratahs in 2012, bringing to an end a Brumby career that started in 2004.
The lack of any other big-name backline players could be hurting the Brumbies. There are some very talented junior players in the squad but perhaps it was recognised that throwing them into SupeRugby too early could hurt their chances and confidence.
Robbie Coleman surprised a few with his early season form but he has dropped off the radar since the opening rounds. He could definitely be one for the future; at this stage he can serve as an impact player coming off the bench to use his pace against a tiring opposition.
Christian Lealiifano and Matt Toomua were signed with a view to the future but have both had indifferent seasons so far. Their abilities were recognised during the middle of the season when the Brumbies deployed the experimental ‘tri-halves’ system that put the pair of them and Giteau in the starting XV, all sharing the playmaker role.
The main goals for the rest of the Super season can only be to save face and maintain morale. The Brumbies will be looking to win two or three more games and will be particularly keen to redeem their standing in the Australian conference, having been kicked around by the other four sides in the derbies.
To achieve these aims there must be more stability in the team, particularly with the starting XV selections. There has been so much chopping and changing in key positions that no effective combinations have been established. Injuries have necessitated some of those changes but many others have been arbitrary and ineffectual. Players thrive on confidence and being shifted from last week’s starting spot never feels like a reward.
With finals hopes long gone the coaching staff will be appraising the entire roster with a view to their value in the future. Everyone in the squad bar the departing players will need to show their best work ahead of the arrival of Jake White in 2012. And those departing players will be hoping they have an appointment with Robbie Deans in another month or so…
Getting back to Jake White: the club pulled off a triumph by securing the services of a World Cup-winning coach for the next four years. White’s reputation and track record suggest he’s the off-field leader the Brumbies need to guide them back to Super success.
But the recruitment of on-field leadership is an urgent priority. The departures of Giteau, Ashley-Cooper and Chapman will leave huge gaps, and if rumours of Elsom and Hoiles moving on are true, that problem will only get worse.
On the plus side, the Brumbies will retain the big-match experience of Alexander and Moore, and Palmer’s rise will only continue if he can form a fruitful partnership with those two hardheads. For Lealiifano, Toomua and the rest of the young brigade, White’s arrival could be the making of their careers — or the breaking.
This coming weekend the Brumbies play the Lions at home with the remaining fixtures against the Force (away), then host the Stormers, then it’s the Reds (away), the Rebels (home) and the Waratahs (away). It adds up to a tough ending to a tough season.