Since the revival of the 12-team Super Rugby competition, the return to the classic round robin competition and a uniquely Pacific flair has come hand-in-hand with never-ending fan discourse.
The discussions centre around format, competitiveness, and, probably most vocally, the dominance of the Kiwi sides. Such discourse has permeated across multiple iterations of the competition at this point and will likely continue until we see someone from outside Aotearoa lift the ‘egg basket.’
A view of the Super Rugby Pacific trophy is seen ahead of the Super Rugby Pacific Final match between Chiefs and Crusaders at FMG Stadium Waikato, on June 24, 2023, in Hamilton, New Zealand. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)
While Super Rugby Pacific has been far from glamorous for Australia’s rugby sides, the Brumbies have been the one team that comes close to challenging New Zealand supremacy. Across two seasons of the competition, the men from the capital have amassed a 50% winning record against all Kiwi sides, with the Crusaders proving the only nut the Ponies have still to crack.
Their two semi-final finishes have been the bright spark for Australian rugby. Even more impressive, after Dan McKellar’s departure from the head coach role was that Stephen Larkham (despite being away from Canberra for nearly six seasons) was able to pick up exactly where McKellar left off in 2023 and equal his efforts.
However, 2024 looms as a test of faith for fans, players, and the organization. Since their formation in 1996, the Brumbies have seemingly felt like an anomaly of Australian rugby. Whether it comes from being the first club representative of an area away from a ‘traditional heartland’, or as being originally envisioned as the ‘rejects’ club from a much-maligned capital city, the identity the Brumbies have crafted is nothing short of impressive.
Corey Toole of the Brumbies scores a try during the round 12 Super Rugby Pacific match between ACT Brumbies and Highlanders at GIO Stadium, on May 14, 2023, in Canberra, Australia. (Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images)
The Lord himself, Laurie Fisher, often speaks about the connection Brumbies players feel to the region, and to the way they play. They recruit not just to fill depth and build a squad; they pick players who can complement their style of rugby the best way. While all other Aussie sides may chop and change their strategies with the times, the Brumbies play a certain way.
You know what their strengths are. You know how they will attack you. The challenge, if you are the opposition, is that you have to be better than that style if you are to have any hope of beating them. You have to be good, because the Brumbies are extremely good at how they play.
But great sides –, the Crusaders and Chiefs are, as they both came away from Bruce Stadium in 2022 and 2023 with wins over a full strength Brumbies outfit. From attacking the set piece in crafty ways to stifle momentum, to flinging the ball out into open play, both sides showed they could go that one step further, finding a way to tame the horses on multiple occasions.
Having a certain style of play means teams can more easily predict how you will approach attack and defence. Teams that are good enough can turn your strategies against you, and when you have a situation like the Brumbies being last in the competition for offloads (with just 88 across the whole regular season), they will take advantage.
It was the pressure that Fijian Drua exerted on the Brumbies on their trip to the capital that saw the shortcomings of the home side’s current system brought to the forefront, with the free-flowing Fijians having the momentum, speed, and better game management for 60 minutes.
While the Brumbies went on to win the game, the Drua showed that, when drawn away from their structure, the Brumbies can be conquered. Even more interestingly, until the reinforcements came on to steady the ship, they panicked.
Momentum also stifled the 2023 Brumbies campaign, as players were taken out of rotation for Wallabies camps and national duty. While all squads were affected, it proved more significant on the Brumbies than most. While the loss to the Crusaders in Christchurch was not all together surprising, the losses to the Hurricanes and the Western Force, two sides that they have traditionally a strong record against, were.
The games exposed that while the Brumbies reserves could maintain the structure, their lack of game time shone through significantly, especially in comparison with the Crusaders match, which saw the home side also field a weaker outfit due to All Black commitments. The 35-17 bonus point win is a testament to the strength of Canterbury’s depth.
Stephen Larkham of the Brumbies looks on ahead of the round five Super Rugby Pacific match between Crusaders and ACT Brumbies at Orangetheory Stadium, on March 24, 2023, in Christchurch, New Zealand. (Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)
By the end of 2023, questions have emerged around how the Brumbies can counterattack teams who have worked out their structure, and their depth. It is a side that can start well, get up to fourth gear and be competitive, but lacks those small one percenters needed to transition to fifth gear. Only there can the Brumbies challenge the likes of the Crusaders, Blues, and Chiefs.
National commitments are outside of the Brumbies’ control, and as centralization discussions continue, will only become more invasive. The teams that are performing the best will inevitably feature more players that are picked for higher honors. It comes with the turf.
It is the responsibility of Larkham, therefore, to ensure that the extended squad is able to step into those shoes and be as effective as his starting players. He is likely to find it harder to achieve next year.
‘Lord’ Laurie Fisher has an enormous amount of rugby IP, and his loss will be significant for the Brumbies. The addition of Ben Mowen to the coaching ranks will be considerable, but given the Queenslander is still in the early stages of his coaching career, it will take time for his influence to grow within the squad. Laurie Fisher
The Brumbies are also facing a challenge of their identity. For a side that has been so successful, the mantra that “success brings success” proves to have not been the case for them, with the team regularly playing to crowds of under 10,000 despite a strong home record: in stark contrast to their cross-town code rivals, the Canberra Raiders.
Even the loss of the man many great Brumbies players and fans have considered to be the “heart, soul and spirit” of the club, Garry ‘Quinzo’ Quinlivan in October 2023 felt like it hit with new meaning. Where the Brumbies go in 2024 is not just a reflection of the fight they’ve shown so far, but what their future looks like.
Yet, this is where the strength of the men and women from Canberra lies. Larkham knows the Brumbies like the back of his hand, and it is a rare case that a team comes into pre-season with a squad this settled.
While several players have been released (indeed many players in the Canberra system have been picked up by other clubs), over 30 players were officially committed to the 2024 season by mid-way through last season. It suggests players are confident in the club. They are settled, and have faith in the systems in place.
Larkham has included three new faces to address depth issues, with Harrison Goddard set to support Ryan Lonergan at scrum-half after the departure of Nic White, newcomer Lachlan Shaw being brought in to further reinforce their impressive lock stocks, and newcomer Austin Anderson coming across from Waikato to complement the centers, serving as stiff competition to the likes of Len Ikitau, Ollie Sapford, and Tamati Tua.
Whether it is enough remains to be seen, but much of the depth at the Brumbies has shown itself to be competitive against most of the competition. Momentum is with the organization as well, with the women’s side making huge strides forward in the 2023 Super W, and the U19s side winning their first-ever championship earlier this year.
Super Rugby Pacific needs a non-New Zealand side to step up, to find that fifth gear and really challenge for the title. Despite the challenges and cracks exposed in 2023, the Brumbies have the capability to do that. Such an opportunity for this team to go to even greater heights.