Super Rugby AU whets appetite for trans-Tasman main course

The Queensland Reds beat the defending champions, the Brumbies, 19-16 in a memorable Super Rugby AU final in front of 42,000 spectators at Suncorp Stadium over the weekend. But the Australian teams will need to go to another level to prevail in the highly-anticipated trans-Tasman competition, which starts on Friday night with the Highlanders hosting the Reds in Dunedin.

The nation’s best must start to bridge the gap with their New Zealand rivals to help Australia regain its place as one of the major nations of world rugby, but they still seem to be lagging behind the Kiwis. For all the passion of Saturday’s final, the game was not played at quite the same high standard as the Crusaders’ 24-13 win against the Chiefs in the final of the Super Rugby Aotoeroa competition.

While the Reds and the Brumbies have shown they should be competitive with most of the New Zealand sides, it is difficult to see the Melbourne Rebels, NSW Waratahs and Western Force matching it with the Kiwis. In Super Rugby AU the bottom three sides between them sprung only one upset win against the top two teams – the Force’s 30-27 win against the Reds in the final round in Perth – and that was in a game in which the result did not matter. How will they beat the Kiwis?

Even the Brumbies may struggle. Coming off the disappointment of losing the final, the Brumbies are still carrying injuries to key players and have been given a tough draw in the trans-Tasman competition, including a first round match against the Crusaders in Christchurch. It may be left to the Reds to carry the flag for Australia, but will they be any match for the likes of the Crusaders or the Chiefs?

Interestingly, the Reds won the Super Rugby AU title by adopting the Crusaders’ traditional trait of dominating at the back end of games. Overpowering opposition in the last 20 minutes has been a distinguishing characteristic since Queensland coach Brad Thorn played for the Red and Blacks in the early and late 2000s.

The Crusaders achieve ascendancy in the last quarter of games by manipulating the defence in the first 60 minutes and by having superior fitness and greater depth on the bench. They have also developed an unflinching confidence in their own ability, which separates them even from the other New Zealand teams.

Thorn appears to have installed this mentality into the Reds, who came from behind three times this season to defeat the Brumbies, twice in the round robin and again in the final. The Reds trailed by 17 points in Canberra and by 12 points in Brisbane in their wins against the Brumbies in the regular season and were behind 13-6 at half-time last Saturday night.

In fact, the Reds did not take the lead until captain and five-eighth James O’Connor scored the match-winning try in the 85th minute, but they never gave up, never doubted they could win. With the Brumbies leading 16-12, momentum swung towards the Reds when ACT five-eighth Noah Lolesio was called for a forward pass to replacement hooker Folau Faingaa in the 72nd minute, a decision hotly disputed by Brumbies supporters.

From the ensuing scrum rookie Reds outside-centre Josh Flook made a decisive break in the midfield, taking play deep into Brumbies territory. The Brumbies had an opportunity to secure the win with a lineout in their own territory in the 79th minute. They only had to throw the ball to the front and hold onto it for a minute or so to win the game, but the ball was inexplicably over-thrown to the back where the Reds retrieved it.

It took the Reds another five minutes to come up with the winning try, but they were patient. The Reds were awarded a penalty in the 83rd minute after the Brumbies scrum, which had been reduced to six men following the sin-binning of Darcy Swain and Luke Reimer, collapsed five metres out. Instead of opting for another five-metre scrum against an under-manned Brumbies pack, the Reds elected to tap the ball and run.

Why did the Reds choose that option when tight-head prop Taniela Tupou was the most dominant front-rower on the field? Tupou had smashed the Brumbies scrum twice in the first-half, but significantly he was also penalised twice for angling in. It turned out to be an inspired choice. Tupou charged to the line, dragging Brumbies defenders in. From the ruck O’Connor waltzed across the line to score, winning the title and adding another chapter to his redemption story.

Notwithstanding the lopsided 20-8 penalty count in favour of the Reds from the whistle of Queensland referee Nic Berry and controversy over several calls and non-calls, it would be churlish to begrudge the Reds their triumph, although you had to feel for the Brumbies. Whether either team are capable of beating the Crusaders, or any of the other Kiwi sides, remains to be seen, but at least they have whetted appetites for the main meal.