The ACT Brumbies’ commanding 47-25 victory over the Western Force in last weekend’s final round of the regular Super Rugby season, to put it simply, produced the goods.
Needing a victory – and the result of another fixture to go their way – in order to secure a home play-off match, the Brumbies achieved what was required of them with alarming ease. The Canterbury Crusaders did their part, too, in defeating the Otago Highlanders.
In the circumstances, the Brumbies were not expected to canter to victory as comfortably as they did. After all, the Force had shown, at times, in 2014 that they were capable of challenging the order at the summit of Super Rugby.
But at the Force’s expense, the Brumbies produced a performance as professional as it was polished on their way to securing a deserved reward for another impressive season; a fourth place finish and a play-off encounter against the Waikato Chiefs at GIO Stadium Canberra this Saturday night.
The season has had its ups and downs, but reaching the finals was a pleasing result, according to Brumbies coach Stephen Larkham.
“We’ve had a tough year,” he says.
“We’ve gone through 37 players, which is more than the amount of players we have contracted, but it’s very satisfying to have qualified for the finals.
“What we’ve achieved so far has been similar to last year, but we’ve had so many more injuries this year to contend with which makes where we’ve got to even more rewarding.”
Having finished second in the competition in 2013 before falling agonisingly short of claiming a first title since 2004 when they lost to the Chiefs in the grand final, the Brumbies find themselves in familiar territory heading into this weekend’s must-win clash.
Larkham’s men have played finals rugby before. They have shouldered the weight of expectation and last season they defied the odds by going as deep in the competition as they did.
The current playing group at the Brumbies, although still in its infancy, has displayed the priceless ability over the last two years to get the job done in the midst of much hysteria. It is a hallmark often associated with title-winning teams, but the Brumbies have it encoded in their DNA due in large part to former coach Jake White.
White, who coached South Africa to a World Cup triumph in 2007, took over at the helm of the Brumbies in 2012. Having endured their worst season in 2011 since the club’s inception in 1996 – a 13th place finish – the Brumbies were in disarray at the time of his arrival.
Compounding the misery was the fact that the Brumbies had not qualified for the finals since last winning the competition in 2004, when they defeated the Crusaders 47-38. The club, although Australia’s most successful franchise with two titles to its name (2001 and 2004), had hit rock bottom, and on its way there the playing group had surrendered the aura their predecessors spent so much time building.
Larkham, who had been part of the club’s coaching set-up in 2011 and who remained as an assistant of White’s, says the culture around the club was the biggest cause of the Brumbies’ downfall.
“It was the culture more than anything else,” he says.
“There were a few cultural habits that remained from past years and the game had moved on.”
But when White arrived in Canberra, it signalled the dawn of a new era for the ACT franchise.
Laurie Fisher, a former head coach, re-joined the club as the forwards specialist, while Dean Benton took charge of the strength and conditioning department. Larkham remained in charge of the backs. There was an overhaul of the playing group, too.
“We had a good shake up when Jake arrived,” Larkham says.
“It was just an opportunity to start afresh and look at everything again.
“We turned over a lot of players between 2011 and 2012 and the new players that came in certainly helped change the culture.
“It was pleasing to see the transformation that occurred at the club between 2011 and 2012 because it had been very difficult in the years before that. There was a real cultural shift in the organisation.”
White instilled in his team a strong work ethic; something that had been absent at the Brumbies throughout much of the period they spent in the wilderness between claiming the title in 2004 and the South African’s arrival.
To react to adversity is a quality, and White made that a hallmark of his side from the very beginning. The Brumbies went close to qualifying for the finals in 2012, White’s first season in charge, before storming to a second place finish last year.
Indeed, the Brumbies stood tall and reacted to adversity.
White quit his position at the conclusion of last season, and while his exit raised some serious doubts about the club’s ability to continue improving, Larkham and Fisher, his replacements, have handled the challenge thrust upon them with aplomb.
The pair have continued to lead the Brumbies on an upwards trajectory, and Larkham believes the current playing group is capable of emulating the kind of success the club has previously experienced.
“I’ve said it a couple of times this year that I think there is a bit of a comparison [between the current playing group and the one around a decade ago],” he says.
“There’s a winning edge to this team and the players are growing in confidence as each season passes.
“We feel that we can beat any other team in the competition when we’re playing our best rugby.”
Regardless of the outcome of this weekend’s clash with the Chiefs, this is just the beginning of a new Brumbies era.
You get the feeling the best is still to come.
Get along to GIO Stadium Canberra on Saturday night to help get the Brumbies across the line against the Chiefs.
When: 7.40pm, Saturday 19 July 2014 Where: GIO Stadium Canberra Tickets: Available for purchase from ticketek
The RiotACT have 4 lots of (x4) tickets for the Chiefs match at GIO Stadium Canberra this Saturday to give away. Visit our facebook page to find out how to enter.