Can the Brumbies bounce back from the injury to Christian Lealiifano? Photo: Getty Images
Sometimes there are moments in a game that set the theme, other times there are moments which completely turn a game on its head. Henry Speight's try right on the half-time siren was one of the latter in the Brumbies' 23-6 victory over the Waratahs in Canberra on Saturday night.
Up until that point the scores were locked at 6-6, with the Waratahs slightly up on possession stats. But the Brumbies, subjectively at least, were up on effectiveness with the possession they had. From that moment on, and particularly when punctuated by another Brumbies' try not four minutes into the second half, only one team seemed the likely victors.
Importantly, in the creation of both their tries, the Brumbies maintained possession for 12 and 16 phases respectively – and then grasped their slim opportunity when presented. And that was the difference between the sides, for whenever the Waratahs created tryscoring opportunities it was their looseness in contact that cost them, compared with the Brumbies' perseverance and expediency.
However, the Brumbies' joy at their two-game Australian conference lead was dampened when injury struck their star five-eighth Christian Lealiifano (after the siren). Having previously lost Matt Toomua for the season, it will be a good test of the Brumbies' depth to see how they recover from Lealiifano's absence.
If they can find a reasonable replacement and instruct him quickly in their style, they may recover well, as a lot of what they are doing will not change. Although Lealiifano was important, their recovery has been built on team rather than on any individual.
They will still strive for accuracy in the forwards, combined with speed and simple angle running in the face of the opposition through the backs. Success ultimately will be in the subtlety and simplicity: how easy can they make things for Lealiifano's replacement and how quickly the team can adjust to the subtle differences any personnel change brings.
The number of injuries does highlight the vulnerability of the Australian teams, as our already questionable depth is further stretched.
Debate continues about Australian rugby dissipating its stocks through the five teams in our conference, as there is no doubt that at times we have looked thin on the ground in talent. The adage, “if you spread yourself too thin you'll disappear” comes to mind. But while this may be true for now, it needn't be true forever. Indeed when viewing the Rebels' narrow 41-35 loss to the Bulls, the Force's unfortunate 17-13 loss to the Cheetahs, and the Reds' 15-11 heartbreak against the Crusaders, there is evidence to suggest the gap is not as big as some would suggest.
Further, although it may take the most Pollyanna of perspectives, there is a potential upside to this run of injuries and that is that more Australian rugby players are exposed to the Super Rugby stage.
Geniuses and freaks aside, often the only difference between a very good provincial – and even test player – and a very good club player is opportunity. In the past, one of Australia's biggest weaknesses has also been our greatest strength. We rarely had the depth of other nations, but what talent we enjoyed thrived in either the Waratahs or the Reds, and later the Brumbies, so they became weapons on the international stage.
Front-rowers Ewen McKenzie, Phil Kearns and Tony Daly played years together with the Waratahs and Wallabies, Tim Horan and Jason Little forged a memorable pairing in the centres for the Reds, as did George Gregan and Stephen Larkham for the Brumbies.
Once the top test team is established this season, it is possible there will be very few combinations that have regularly played together at provincial level. This means we must look to the positives of the current environment, while solving the problems it presents.
The goal must be to exploit the broader talent pool that has been given the gift of greater exposure.
To maximise such a potential advantage in the long term will rely largely on the ability of the Wallabies' coaching staff to quickly foster and integrate individuals within team patterns. It will be fascinating to see how Jake White and his team handle this problem after their bye round next weekend.
If they don't adjust accordingly it may be the negative turning point for their season.