Game breaker … Kurtley Beale. Photo: Getty Images
The Brumbies look the real deal, but don't yet dismiss the Queensland Reds from finishing on top of the Australian conference. As for the Waratahs, until they get some of their X-factor players back, a team short of class and on-field nous will remain among the Super Rugby also-rans.
A compelling 11th round enabled the Brumbies to push further ahead at the top of the Australian conference, after the Waratahs simply handed them the game in Canberra. The Brumbies' triumph was more a case of their opposition doing everything they could to lose the match than any ingenuity from the home team. The Brumbies played smart, remained focused, limited their errors and that was enough, as the Waratahs were victims of being overexcited, throwing too many aimless passes and taking countless unnecessary options.
That the Waratahs ran 848 metres with the ball during the game to the Brumbies' 431 metres and still couldn't score a try shows something is amiss.
The injury toll at the Waratahs has hit them badly, as they are without so many big-time performers, such as Test wingers Drew Mitchell and Lachie Turner, and it's clear several of their back-ups, out wide and in the pack, are not up to the required standard. And the loss of Kurtley Beale to the Rebels has knocked them around, as they now lack any real vibrancy or unpredictability to their attack. Beale was a game breaker. Now the Waratahs have none, relying on predictable plodders.
The momentum is building nicely for the Brumbies, but it is not yet time for those Canberra supporters, who have suddenly begun crowing again
after years of inactivity, to believe the province is returning to the ACT golden era of the late '90s-early 2000s.
Beating the Waratahs is always a marvellous chest-beating moment, but what happened in the final minute could destabilise the Brumbies' campaign. The saddest moment of the weekend was when it was discovered their five-eighth Christian Lealiifano's season was over after he suffered a broken ankle.
Lealiifano has been at the centre of the Brumbies' revival. His willingness to attack the gain line, constantly offloading in contact, has enabled the Brumbies' attack to repeatedly get in behind their opponents to create havoc. A player who would have been picked in the Wallabies squad for the June internationals against Scotland and Wales had succeeded in resuscitating an ailing beast.
But with Lealiifano gone, along with Matt Toomua, the Brumbies could take a backward step as there is no obvious No.10 replacement.
And despite the Reds losing to the Crusaders yesterday, the defending Super Rugby champions are getting it together at the right time. There was so much to like about the Reds' performance in Christchurch. They antagonised the Crusaders all game, and weren't helped by New Zealand referee Bryce Lawrence, who penalised them 16-7, with 11 of the Reds' infringements occurring at the ruck. Some penalties were understandable, several were perplexing.
Reds coach Ewen McKenzie would probably feel some sympathy towards former Springboks coach Peter de Villiers, who like many of his countrymen is still apoplectic about Lawrence's refereeing in last year's South Africa-Australia World Cup quarter-final.
The Reds' scrum struggled at times, but the visiting forwards stood up elsewhere, with openside breakaway Liam Gill having a phenomenal game, along with No.8 Scott Higginbotham and second-rower Rob Simmons, who has picked up his workrate in recent weeks. The midfield combination of Ben Lucas-Mike Harris also worked well, while winger Digby Ioane was everywhere.
Who wins the Australian conference and makes the final could easily be determined in three weeks' time when the Reds meet the Brumbies in Canberra.