ACT Brumbies Season Preview 2012

By Paul Cook

INS: Fotu Auelua, Tom Cox, Scott Fardy, Zack Holmes, Tevita Kuridrani, Jesse Mogg, Ben Mowen, Ruaidhri Murphy, Leon Power, Ian Prior, Siliva Siliva, Kimami Sitauti, Joseph Tomane

OUTS: Adam Ashley-Cooper, Mitchell Chapman, Mark Chisholm, Huia Edmonds, Rocky Elsom, Frankie Fainifo, Matt Giteau, Stephen Hoiles, Salesi Ma’afu, Patrick Phibbs, Julian Salvi, Tyrone Smith, Josh Valentine, Henry Vanderglas

2011 was a year to forget for the ACT Brumbies and there is only one way they can go in 2012. Having lost a significant amount of experience, talent and intellectual property from their ranks, it is up to new head coach Jake White to galvanise the remaining players from last year, instil confidence in the batch of young guns also at his disposal and integrate them successfully into an uncompromising Super Rugby environment. The smart money and the talk around the traps is of a season of regrouping, picking themselves back off the canvas, dusting themselves down and learning how to fight again but with White on board and a host of top line players still smarting from last years disappointment, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them punching above their weight before too long. Three of those players chomping at the bit to right some wrongs are Ben Alexander, Ben Hand and Pat McCabe. Here are their thoughts on the road to redemption that lies ahead…

RuggaMatrix: What are the realistic targets for the Brumbies this year?

Ben Hand: “With everything that went on last season. I think some of the supporters down here were probably a little bit alienated from the way in which we performed – particularly at home – so from my perspective, it’s about winning back respect from the Canberra community who have been great supporters of ours over the years. We want to get them back on side and right behind us.”

RuggaMatrix: Is it about wiping the slate clean and making a fresh start but being mindful of what happened in 2011?

Ben Alexander: “It is, you’ve got the young blokes and the enthusiasm that they bring but you’ve also got the blokes that were there last year and went through the pain and the disappointment. They have that willingness and they want to write those wrongs so, if you combine the two together, then you’ve got a side that’s ready to work hard and ready to perform.”

RuggaMatrix: There are a lot of fresh faces in the squad but you have lost a wealth of experience with the likes of Matt Giteau, Mark Chisholm and Adam Ashley-Cooper. Given the high turnover of players, what can reasonably be expected this year or is it a transitional phase?

Ben Hand: “I don’t think in professional rugby that you can say that you’re going through a transitional phase. At the end of the day, you’re being paid to perform and blokes that have been given opportunities have got a job to do regardless of how experienced they are so I think that Brumbies fans should look forward to this season.
“We’ve still got a lot of experience in our forward pack, we haven’t lost a lot there compared to the backline and the recruitment of guys like Ben Mowen and Fotu Auelua from Toulon, who have experience of playing professional rugby, will help.

“It’s probably our backs where we’re going to struggle on the experience side of things but in blokes like Matt To’omua, Christian Lealifaano and Pat McCabe, we do have a core of our younger backs that need to step up and take a leadership role. They’ve been around for three or four years now, so the onus is definitely going to be on those guys to step up and take more of a senior role within the team and Pat’s already done that with his naming as one of the vice-captain’s at the club.”

RuggaMatrix: Apart from Salesi Ma’afu’s departure Ben, the front row is untouched and when you look at guys like Dan Palmer, Jerry Yanuyanutawa, Anthony Hegarty and Jono Owen backing up established figures such as yourself and Stephen Moore, there’s a good chance for you to really grow as a unit over the next few years isn’t there?

Ben Alexander: “Definitely, we’ve put a lot of work into our scrummaging down in Canberra, not just the blokes you named but we’ve also got guys like the Australian Under 20’s hooker Siliva Siliva, Norths prop Scott Sio and we’ve also got an Irish prop, Ruaridh Murphy, who’s done some great gym work and comes across as an extremely impressive prop. It’s something that the Brumbies have always prided themselves on and we’ve all got at least a few years left together and it’s something we’re going to work hard at and put a mark down as a team. We want to have – not only the best scrum in Australia – but the best scrum in the comp and we’ll be working hard towards that.”

RuggaMatrix: Obviously, there’s a new coaching regime in place as well this year with World Cup winner Jake White coming on board, and the return of club legend George Gregan. Exciting times ahead?

Ben Hand: “It’s very exciting, the pre-season training camps were very technical and the expertise on offer is first class. Not only have we got Jake, we also have former head coach Laurie Fisher returning from a stint in Europe and he’s really benefited from his time over in Europe with Munster. We’ll have a strong pack this year and if we can provide a solid platform, we’ve got some new and exciting backs that many of the rugby public haven’t heard of before but hopefully, by this time next year, they’re definitely on the map.”

RuggaMatrix: How did pre-season go, both on the field and on the training paddock?

Ben Alexander: “Pre-season training went very well, players have got their best ever skin fold (body fat) results, personal bests in their fitness and personal bests in their strength, so that only bodes well for what the group could produce further down the line.
“Everyone is extremely excited. There have been a lot of changes both on and off the field at the club and excitement levels are as high as I’ve ever seen them. We played some good footy in both trials and learnt a lot of lessons, so now everyone is just focused on going out on the park and showing – not just everyone – but ourselves as well, what we’re capable of.”

Ben Hand: “There’s a good vibe around the club with promising trial form including a win over the Force and a narrow loss to last years champions, the Reds. That’s given such a youthful squad a lot of confidence heading into the start of the year, however, trial form doesn’t always equal comp form so we aren’t getting carried away.”

Pat McCabe: “I think that there is an extremely positive feeling within the group going into the season. The team has had a long and tough pre-season and the guys are really looking forward to getting into it. The trial results have been up and down but there has been a really clear transfer of the things we’ve been working on in pre-season into the trial games, which is always important.”

RuggaMatrix: What are the key areas of improvement needed for the Brumbies to have a more successful season than last year?

Ben Alexander: “There’s plenty. Quite a few areas of our game were not up to scratch last season, such as our general performances in the second half of games. We led at half time in a lot of games but then fell away due to poor conditioning and decision making under pressure.”

Ben Hand: “We need to be more patient when we get into try scoring positions. We have worked a lot on this aspect during the pre-season and have some strategies in place. We are also much fitter than last year, which will hopefully help us to translate some of those close losses last year into wins this year.”

Pat McCabe: “I’m hoping that a number of those areas including toughness at the breakdown and general conditioning have already been significantly improved. I think the entire group having an understanding of the way we want to play and each person executing their individual roles will be important.”

RuggaMatrix: How do you rate your rivals in the Australian conference – will the Reds and the Waratahs be the ones to beat again?

Ben Alexander: “The Reds looked very good in our trial against them in Cairns. They’re the reigning champs and with their whole squad back again, I can’t see why they won’t be there or thereabouts come finals time. The Rebels showed enough glimpses of hope last year that will have them excited and believing that they can take a few steps forward this season, especially with the talent they have recruited. But I think they need to play with more intensity, consistently. You could really tell when they were ‘up’ for a game and when they weren’t. The same goes for their defence but I think the two are linked.”

Ben Hand: “Obviously, the Reds and the Tahs are blessed with a lot of depth but I think the Rebels will surprise some people this year, especially with their new backline acquisitions. AAMI Park could be turned into a real fortress if they string some wins together.”

Pat McCabe: “I think any team can beat any other team within the Australian conferences. While I haven’t seen all of the trial games, it would appear that the Tahs and the Reds will be the hardest to beat, but I think the Force backrow and the Rebels backline are going to give a lot of teams a headache.”

RuggaMatrix: What about the main threats from New Zealand and South Africa – the usual suspects or could we see a couple of bolters this year?

Ben Alexander: “The Crusaders as always and I think most of the New Zealand sides will do well except for maybe the Hurricanes. New Zealand rugby hasn’t lost as many players overseas or to retirement as South Africa has, but in saying that you never know. The Sharks and the Stormers still have very strong squads.”

Ben Hand: “I think the Crusaders and Stormers will be tough in both their relative conferences, while the Blues will be a threat as well. The most improved team I think will be the Lions off the back of their Currie Cup win last year and with some great young players emerging under John Mitchell’s watchful eye.”

Pat McCabe: “I think the Blues will be right up there and I’m predicting the Lions to be the big improvers as well.”

RuggaMatrix: How do you think the mid-season break for The Rugby Championship will affect the season?

Ben Alexander: “I don’t think it will affect the season anymore than the Tri-Nations did. There’s obviously a little bit more travel but having Argentina join the tournament can only be a good thing.”

Ben Hand: “I think it will be interesting to see how teams manage it given its the first time it has occurred. It will be an opportunity for some teams to freshen up however, those teams with large numbers of international reps will have to juggle it a bit differently.”

Pat McCabe: “I don’t feel it will have a huge impact, despite the obvious increased length of the season compared to last year. However, I think the inclusion of Argentina into the competition is really exciting for world rugby.”

The Breakdown

1. Follow My Leader:
With Stephen Hoiles out for the entire season, Rocky Elsom appearing only once and Stephen Moore missing a few games at the start of the year, the Brumbies key leaders were barely available in 2011 to a side that struggled in the face of poor form, coaching dramas and a crisis of confidence. The addition of Hoiles and Elsom for the majority of the season would have brought a significant amount to the table in terms of ability alone but perhaps their contribution as leaders and as examples to follow in troubled times – particularly for the many youngsters in the squad – may well have been an even greater boon.

Matt Giteau was the solitary rock that stood firm in the face of the severest weathering the Canberra outfit has experienced thus far and his departure to the French Riviera in the off season appeared to pave the way for seasoned campaigner Moore to step into the breach. Credit then to incoming coach Jake White for throwing a pretty large curveball with perhaps his biggest decision since he took over the reins, announcing fellow newcomer and Waratahs discard Ben Mowen, as his captain. Quite why the Tahs saw fit to reward a fit and firing 27yr old who’d just completed 42 Super Rugby appearances in a row with a sign pointing to the exit door remains a puzzle but their loss is the Brumbies gain and White’s surprising choice may prove to be a stroke of genius.

2. Jake’s Progress:
There was something in the air around Brumbyland last year and it wasn’t pleasant. The stale smell of complacency hung with every bad result, a side which had held the torch for Australian sides in Super Rugby for so many years since their inception had been going off for a while and although many present may have caught the odd whiff of underachievement and mediocrity during the decline, the exact horror of their decay didn’t become truly apparent until the fall-out from their worst season in the competition’s history was right under their noses. It was time for change, time for a clean sweep, time for a new dawn under somebody who could re-instil the values, discipline, belief and winning mentality to a squad of largely untried and unproven players with the large ‘potential’ tag hanging over them.

Where better to look than a World Cup winning coach then? Jake White had been a hugely successful overseer of South Africa’s junior sides, helping one of his country’s finest generation of players to bloom before taking charge of the top job and with it the opportunity to lead his former protégés to the pinnacle of their sport by lifting the William Webb Ellis trophy in France in 2007. He will be respected and he’s a winner. How successfully he transfers his undoubted knowledge and talent into the daily grind of competition football over a period of seven months will go a long way to dictating the Brumbies fate.

3. Beyond Belief:
Winning only four games in a season can take its toll on a players belief system. They start to second guess themselves, start to question if what they’d been doing since day dot had ever actually been the right way and they start to try things away from the playbook in order to change things up in the hope of finding that winning formula once again. Added to the mental hang-ups from an unsuccessful season, the loss of half a dozen experienced and respected players and the rapid integration of a new breed of hopefuls can give reason for further doubt. ‘If we couldn’t turn it around with all those great players on board last year, how can we hope to with a host of no names?’ etc.

Thankfully, the Brumbies need look no further than their fellow countrymen for inspiration. In 2007, the Waratahs, with a certain greenhorn called Kurtley Beale taking his first tentative steps in the professional game, fell from grace in spectacular fashion. Having finished runners-up in 2005 and made the semis in 2006, the following year saw a host of injuries to key players and the blooding of many young players which resulted in a 13th place finish. However, most of those fledglings went on to take the Tahs to the final again only twelve months later and to finals football in both 2010 and 2011.

One place below them on the ladder in 2007, the Reds couldn’t get any lower. Four years later, they start the new season as defending champions and with a team that boasts almost half of the Wallaby matchday twenty-two. It can be done and the Brumbies have to go out believing they are capable of such things. A couple of early wins on the board would go a long way towards fuelling such thoughts and dictating the mental and emotional approach of the side to the rest of the season.