Home Sports How the Brumbies outboxed the Hurricanes

How the Brumbies outboxed the Hurricanes


It was another fantastic bout between two sides who seem to have an intense rivalry and a strong respect, one for the other.

Is this not how rugby should be? I see rugby as a game first and foremost. As such, I want to see two sides and the refs perform with intelligence and a coherent approach.

I want the music to happen. I may prefer one set of musicians but if there is not some balance then the performance falls away.

For me, rugby is a little like what might happen if you could combine an orchestra with a boxing match. The trick is to allow the players to indulge in a degree of biff while also producing a harmonious whole.

The referee and their assistants are the lucky people who get to try to conduct.

I accept there are other more tribal approaches, but they aren’t mine. Bear that in mind when you read anything I have to write.

I have access to four passports, I am an immigrant in any country in which I land, I haven’t lived in my birth land for five decades and although the smell of the land and the light on the snow is still something that makes my heart sing, I don’t really belong in the human community there.

Nor am I entirely at home in a land down under, where women glow and men chunder…

Watching this game, I was reminded of the pair of iconic boxing matches between Muhammad Ali and his rivals in the 1970s, before Ali started to really slow. I speak of the famous ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ and the ‘Thriller in Manila’.

I urge you to record the two 2022 matches between the Brumbies and the Hurricanes. There is so much to watch, so much to savour, just as in those two extraordinary boxing matches.

Before this game kicked off, I found myself thinking about two things. One was what I perceive to be a certain negativity in the Brumbies’ style, this year at least (and maybe longer).

They are a little like South African or English sides – they tend to take you out of the game, to constrict you in their coils more than tear you apart with thrust and counter thrust.

Is this a style that deserves to be rewarded? Many readers will ask whether this is a fair summary of the Brumbies’ style, as a further question.

Another question was whether the Brumbies would come up with something different from the last meeting. One of the things I love about NZ sides is that they adapt quickly and if you just roll out the same thing game after game, they will eat you.

Allan Alaalatoa

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

That, my friends, is intelligence. You might rope a dope once, by kicking deep to Jordie Barrett and Julian Savea and burying them as often as possible, but you probably won’t succeed twice in that tactic.

The Brumbies were missing a critical cog in their grinding wheel – Rob Valetini. He is a player of the kind I love to watch, because he has improved season on season.

He used to be a huge upper body on comparatively spindly legs and his game lacked balance. Over successive seasons he has grown into his role and into his body.

Like the superb Jerome Kaino, he wins games in the small things that are really very big things. Like Kaino, he creates the extra fraction of a second when he hits a breakdown that allows the nine and ten to really size up and seize a moment.

In his absence, the Brumbies, playing a lot off nine, have struggled. So, would this be Valetini lite or something else?

In the last match-up, also away for the Hurricanes (so please credit them for their performance), the Brumbies played almost everything off nine, with Noah Lolesio as an extra centre (a position he played in the under-21 Australian side).

They kicked relentlessly to the Hurricanes’ Jordie Barrett and Julian Savea and starved the extremely dangerous Salesi Rayasi of possession, the kicks were almost all contested and over the course of the match the effect on Jordie Barrett, a tremendous player, was noticeable.

Would they do this again? I doubted that the Hurricanes would allow Barrett to be isolated this way again and I hoped they would bring him in to the centres, where I think he plays his best rugby and where he can most assist an inexperienced ten.

The other aspect of the previous game’s rope a dope was letting the Hurricanes carry into the Brumbies’ line while waiting for the moment when the carrier was isolated to counter punch.

As in Kinshasa, this required the Brumbies to absorb a lot of punishment. Again, I doubted that Wellington would be so generous as to allow this to unfold in reprise.

Brumbies sides of past years have tended to play the same template over and over again. Dan McKellar is a smart bloke (he was a forward, after all).

But he has a player group that is not really the equivalent of some of the great Brumbies groups and players do tend to like to do what they do, not be driven to endlessly change key, or shift tempo.

It hasn’t all been beer and skittles for McKellar’s coaching career – it is said by some that he lost the room at Tuggeranong Vikings, for example (I have no word on how he went at the Burdekin Cane Toads in 1994-95).

Head Coach Dan McKellar of the Brumbies looks on

(Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)

Instead of the oppressive heat and humidity of Manila, this game was played in conditions of brisk temperature, some rain and general nastiness. Advantage the lads from the Windy City, surely.

I could almost see the goal posts at Athletic (or was that Arthritic) Park swaying like drunkard sailors and feel the charm of cold showers post game in the smelly, concrete bowels of that benighted and abysmal stadium.

Part of me went back to losing games at Crookwell, NSW, where charming Kiwi shearers used to make us feel most welcome.

Some things change, some things remain the same. The change was that the Brumbies played less off nine and Lolesio was more like an abrasive ten than an extra centre.

Watch his summation of the moment and pass at four minutes, 58 seconds and again at 59 minutes and I say this is the coming man.

I know that Dave Rennie is less impressed, but what would he know? His two Super Rugby titles are nothing compared to my, as yet unearthed, genius.

Another thing I really like about this player is that he can pass well off both sides and he doesn’t get easily flustered. Anyway, look for yourself and form your own view.

This was a change and I think it drew Wellington into a difficult mid-field duel that ultimately saw the Brumbies’ 12 arguably get the better of the truly superb Jordie Barrett.

Don’t underestimate the difficulty for Irae Simone once he lost his trusted and familiar teammate to a red card. The centres is not a place for extemporising – you need a settled combination there.

The same was that the Brumbies kicked off relentlessly to Jordie Barrett. I counted five kick-offs to him (despite his 12 jersey, he stood at 15 for the kick-offs) and they kicked a lot in open field to the Hurricanes’ fly half, who tended to drop back to fullback.

Jordie Barrett of the Hurricanes talks to his teammates

(Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

This time around Barrett didn’t make errors, but I do wonder if the idea is that apart from the fact that the return kick tends to take the kicker out of play for the moment, it keeps them under mental (and sometimes physical) pressure.

Drip, drip, drip… these are the jabs that keep your opponent guessing and unable to close on you. The beauty of the jab is also that it should be used to slowly open your opponent up to the angle you want.

Also the same was the Brumbies’ kicking game involved a very high proportion of contested kicks. Compare this with the rubbish offered up by other Australian sides.

Again, the Brumbies’ contested kicks seemed to me to be like a steady flow of jabs.

Like the Thriller in Manila, the Hurricanes landed a lot of blows early and really hurt their opponent. Joe Frazier was an impressive human and he could play and so can the Hurricanes.

The try off a beautifully weighted Jordie Barrett kick is a joy to behold and so was the lead-up play: driving, powerful running onto perfect passes.

The turning point, I will argue, was the red-card moment. This should have been where the men in yellow and black took the advantage and steamrollered over the top of a gallant but under manned foe.

And yet, what seemed like a moment later, Owen Franks was off for a tot of warm rum and it was the Brumbies applying the pressure.

And from that time it seemed the game got tighter and grittier and the Brumbies liked it more the more it got like that.

The rucks grew more and more messy, though I am sure the home side was innocent in this. After half time they brought both discipline and mess to the ruck and this was more of the same from the earlier meeting.

Did the referee allow liberties to the home side? The local crowd, as knowledgeable and objective as always, didn’t think so.

Folau Fainga'a of the Brumbies celebrates with his team mates after scoring a try.

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

I thought that the ruck looked a bit congested at times when the Hurricanes were trying to play, but then I did see some of their players bobbing up on the wrong side from time to time.

Perhaps Paul Williams got it more or less right. He is actually a pretty smart referee.

The set pieces were also hard clinches. Lineouts were mostly thrown to the first jumper – I can’t recall either side throwing one to the back, where the really good lineout ball goes.

Neither side got the better in the lineout until late in the second half, when the Brumbies took two off desperate throws by the Hurricanes, towards the middle or back of their lineout.

Scrums were pretty even, allowing for the usual shenanigans.

As time went on the zip started to go out of the Hurricanes. The replacement of Barrett and the magnificent TJ Perenara seemed to rob them of direction, like the moment when Ali, not the heaviest puncher, surgically opened up Frazier’s eye, somewhat blinding him, like the Canberra crowd he saw better out of one eye than the other.

When Barrett and Perenara went off, I felt it was a moment when someone else from the Hurricanes needed to step up and take the game, like Buck would, by the scruff.

I am a very big fan of Ardie Savea and I think he gets a lot of unfair criticism that may stem from perceptions based of his days as a rugby sevens player, but he really struggled to make an impact and I know that Highlander will be saying ‘I told you so’.

To me, he is still an All Black, but it did hurt a little that it seemed like it was Pete Samu who became more prominent as the game went on and I am still struck by Ardie’s leg drive failing him several times as Allan Alaalatoa and others gang tackled him backwards. He worked hard but he didn’t quite take the biscuit on this night.

In the end, I felt like the Brumbies deserved the win. It was a points decision, not a knock out, much like the Thriller.

In answer to my negativity question, I am still a little undecided, but old Milk Train scored some attractive tries and the haters of the maul will have to accept that it accounted for only one of their tries.

I think they did do more than just frustrate. They frustrated and then they landed some straight rights. In Manila, Frazier seemed to offer more, yet in the end it was Ali that landed the lethal, precision strikes.

I confess I still can’t see how the Brumbies beat the Mighty Orcs. They may have disposed of Smokin’ Joe Hurricane but now it is a heavy hitter, a new breed, just like Larry Holmes, that awaits them.

Hoskins Sotutu of the Blues is tackled during the round 14 Super Rugby Pacific match between the ACT Brumbies and the Blues at GIO Stadium on May 21, 2022 in Canberra, Australia. (Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images)

(Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images)

This is not the flaky Blues of 2004-2020. I don’t think the Blues of 2022 are the (estimable) Leon Spinks of rugby (win one match, lose the return).

Yet these Brumbies are craftier than you think and it will be a worthy match-up in fair Auckland next weekend. A lot will need to go right for them (including the way the referee sees the scrum and the breakdown), they will need to be up for it.

And I think they will need to be a little more positive still, because the Blues compared to the Hurricanes have more power at set piece, more solidity in midfield and more points in them.

If I were Stephen Perofeta I would be brushing up my catching of the high ball under pressure, as I think it may just be raining. The more things change…

As a closing note I would also like to thank the likes of Owen Franks, TJ Perenara, Tom Banks and Scott Sio for really brightening my life and for giving so much to this wonderful game.

Whomever you support, it is always worth savouring the gifts brought by the great, or the very good. I have a special respect for Perenara, because he has been a great bench player and that is in some ways harder than being a starter.

The tendency is to overplay to show you are the guy who should be starting. In that sense I am reminded of Chris Whitaker as backup to George Gregan.

Don’t think for a moment that they did not believe that they were worthy of a starting run, not a cameo off the bench.

Yet they made most of their cameos a part of winning performances, not overplayed moments leading to losses.

There is something special in that and something about being part of a whole that any of us could well absorb. Many thanks, gentlemen.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here