Pain can fuel Brumbies' title hunt
Date: December 26 2012
Chris Dutton After exceeding expectations last year, it's crucial Jake White's team doesn't rest on its laurels following the signing of David Pocock, writes CHRIS DUTTON
nother near miss in an eight-season drought or an invaluable stepping stone of the new generation?
The only way to find the answer is to see how the ACT Brumbies deal with their unexpected rise as they move into uncharted territory next year.
The easy option is to brush over narrowly missing the finals as an unknown team, proving everyone wrong in a stunning turnaround.
But the reality is the new generation Brumbies need to view it negatively, as a missed chance at glory, and use the pain to spur them to greater heights. It's amazing how much can change in a year.
Jake White took over after one of the most turbulent periods in Brumbies history - sacked coaches, superstars exiting and a dismal 2011 season.
Instead of big names, the South African set about turning a team filled with untapped potential into a Super Rugby contender.
In came new players, new coaches and new hope, with White using his four-year tenure to rebuild the two-time champion into a title threat.
The problem was the Brumbies hit their first major hurdle after just one game.
The club and the players desperately needed stability in the first year of rebuilding, but then White was linked to the English coaching job.
It was the first of many sink or swim moments.
Had White turned his back on the Brumbies and taken a chance to return to international rugby, the club could have crumbled.
All indications suggested White would leave. He went to lunch with the senior players before the match against the Free State Cheetahs in March, and even they didn't know whether the man touted as the Brumbies' saviour was about to walk away from the club.
In a bizarre few hours at Canberra Stadium, White first revealed to his team he would stay, then told the media of his plans to focus on the Brumbies.
By his own admission, he was tempted by the chance to lead England - the host for the 2015 World Cup.
But for whatever reason, he took a punt on the Brumbies and, instead of getting stuck in a downward spiral, the team ran on to the field and clinched a last-second penalty-goal win against the Cheetahs.
Just a year after a Brumbies team of stars created records for all the wrong reasons, White's decision to stay in Canberra kick-started what most thought was impossible.
The Brumbies' team of no-names - boasting just four Wallabies - surprised all of its rivals.
They went on to:
* Have the most successful two-game tour of South Africa in a decade;
* Break a nine-year hoodoo in Wellington;
* Secure 10 bonus points for the first time since 2002, having losing margins of seven points or less in all but one of their defeats.
One of the biggest turning points came when Christian Lealiifano dislocated his ankle against the NSW Waratahs.
Lealiifano had been playing so well that even though he missed the last six weeks of the season, he almost claimed enough votes to be crowned Australia's Super Rugby player of the year.
It's easy for the Brumbies to wonder ''what if'' after they held top spot in the Australian conference for most of the season.
What if Zack Holmes had kicked that last-minute penalty goal against the Queensland Reds in May?
What if Lealiifano and Matt Toomua hadn't suffered season-ending injuries?
Or what if Stephen Larkham had made a surprise comeback to help the finals charge?
Regardless, the Brumbies still had a golden chance to clinch their first finals berth since 2004 in the last round of the regular season.
All they had to do was beat the Blues - a team anchored near the bottom of the ladder with only pride left to play for - or lose by seven points or less.
Maybe it was the pressure, the hype, the expectation or the dream, but it took its toll on the young side and they crumbled under pressure.
The loss was a bitter pill to swallow after a resurgent season. The way they capitulated against the Blues was especially hard to take.
As captain Ben Mowen said: ''It's just a choke, you can't call it anything else. But I honestly believe that if we win a championship, we'll look back and say that was the game [against the Blues] that changed us.''
The on-field performances exceeded everyone's expectations, including White's, Mowen's and the rest of the side's.
Guys like Jesse Mogg, Joseph Tomane, Scott Fardy, Fotu Auelua and Nic White went from unknown rookies to future stars.
White turned his back on Test rugby to focus on a four-year plan in Canberra.
But perhaps the biggest moment of all happened after the choke and the on-field revival - snaring the signature of star flanker and Wallabies regular David Pocock.
Pocock is the biggest signing in Brumbies history.
The challenge for year two of White's plan is to ensure the players don't suffer second-year syndrome and rely on their gun recruit to end their finals drought.
We'll have to wait until the end of 2013 before we know if this year was a success or failure.