Season review: Brumbies require a rebuild
A late-season surge has the Brumbies in 10th spot and 3rd in the Australian conference heading into the final round, but it is a case of too little too late for Dan McKellar’s men.
The side’s valiant effort in Hamilton wasn’t enough as they went down 24-19 to the Chiefs, making playoff qualification impossible and ending their season’s hopes. They will miss the finals for the first time in six years, after being Australian conference champions two years in a row.
This season has largely been a forgettable one for the Canberra franchise, suffering from dire crowd numbers, poor results and an identity crisis. The Chief Executive became the first in Super Rugby history to beg fans to show up, a sign of the club’s desperation.
Where to now for this beleaguered franchise?
The first season under head coach Dan McKellar promised a new style of attack after coming to the realisation that they needed to score more tries. Six months later that seems to be improving, the side was languishing at the bottom of the try scoring stats but have climbed upward in the final month after a promising run saw victories over the Sunwolves, Bulls and Hurricanes. The side averaged 5.3 tries per game over this stretch, compared to their season average of 3.3.
There are signs of life under McKellar, after a start that yielded just three wins from the first 10 games. The head coach, who spent four years with the Brumbies as an assistant, may have just saved his head-coaching job for next year.
Co-captain and Brumbies legend Christian Lealiifano is heading to Japan for an off-season stint with Toyota and is still contemplating whether he has a future in Australia. The 31-year-old playmaker has made a miraculous comeback after a battle with Leukaemia but has admitted he is ‘getting on a bit now’ and may look to finish with an overseas payday. His departure would be a headache for the Brumbies.
Local homegrown age-grade star Jordan Jackson-Hope was touted as the future when he debuted in 2016 as a 20-year-old, but has rarely been seen at all this year. Lealiifano’s departure could open the door for the youngster, who can play at flyhalf or inside centre.
The Brumbies’ other recent bet at flyhalf was on Nick Jooste, who was lured away from the Western Force by Stephen Larkham as a schoolboy, signing a full-time contract with the Canberra side in 2015. He was let go at the end of last year and now plays club rugby in Brisbane, looking to break into the Reds fold.
This has left the Brumbies with a looming problem, without a bridge between the Toomua-Lealiifano era and the next generation. With Wallabies midfielder Tevita Kuridrani seemingly also on his last legs, the Brumbies backline needs a regeneration. Kyle Godwin – signed from the Force this year – will only be a one-year stopgap, after he signed with Irish club Connacht.
At the top of the wish list is a quality flyhalf, but there are limited options in Australia. Quade Cooper has rejected approaches from the side and the nation is dealing with a shortage at the position. The team has Wharenui Hawera on the books who was a solid starter in 2017, without being spectacular and has shown some exciting glimpses in 2018. Whether he is a long-term solution that can lift the Brumbies into title contention is another story.
At halfback, the side is persisting with Joe Powell after re-signing him. He is serviceable but doesn’t show much more upside. A risky project player like Isaak Fines could have higher upside and be a revelation with the right game plan. He is currently in the Brumbies feeder system after leaving Queensland.
If Chance Peni re-signs and isn’t considered a midfield option, they could look to poach one of the Rebels up and coming centres like Hunter Paisami, Semisi Tupou or entice one of the capable Reds players log-jammed behind Samu Kerevi – Izaia Perese, Chris Feauai-Sautia or Jordan Petaia. Inside centre Duncan Paia’aua who plays a secondary playmaker role at 12 has been in-and-out of Thorn’s side and could also be a target. That would have to be a patient approach with many still under contract for 2019.
In their own youth system, they have promising players Len Ikitau and Noah Lolesio, but both are probably two years or more away from being Super Rugby ready.
Tom Banks has proven to be a wise signing, who has repaid the faith by making further progress this year as a dynamic runner who can provide the Brumbies with some spark. He is sure to feature more prominently in the future as the key back and his growth over one year gives more hope than any other player right now.
One area of the team that is undergoing a shake-up is the back row, with new signings bolstering depth in the position. The Brumbies have locked in Crusaders loosie Pete Samu as they will reportedly lose Isi Naisarani to the Rebels after just one year. Boom teenage sensation Rob Valetini has had a horror run of injuries, but still has years ahead of him. Ex-Reds flanker Lolo Fakaosilea has also been released following two inconsistent seasons. The constant will be David Pocock, whose return has shown what a world-class talent he is at openside. Tom Cusack will also be in contention to retain his starting jersey.
The tight five will be largely unchanged with many still under contract – Wallaby front-rower Allan Alaatatoa, rookie hooker Folau Fainga’a, locks Sam Carter, Blake Enever and Rory Arnold. They will be hoping to retain Scott Sio and Ben Alexander to keep experience in the front-row.
The strength of this side is very much still in the forwards so the desire to play a more attacking brand of rugby will have to be tempered. The Brumbies need to enter full rebuild mode in the backs, and this means taking some risks. The players of a great Brumbies generation – Lealiifano, Kuridrani and Speight need to move on to make that happen. It’s time to see if Jordan Jackson-Hope is a long-term answer.
They will need to be smart in the recruitment market to improve the talent on the team over the next couple of years. The Rebels roster is stacked with backs, many of their youngsters will find their path to Super Rugby blocked. Wallabies winger Sefa Naivalu is stuck on the bench and could be an immediate replacement for 30-year-old Henry Speight. The young Australian ex-pats in Japan – centre Campbell Magnay, flanker Sean McMahon and flyhalf Sam Greene are all attacking talents that would improve this Brumbies team.
With the Rebels and the Waratahs holding most of Australia’s firepower, the Brumbies aren’t going to win the conference with this current team. Outside of sweeping the Sunwolves, the Brumbies were 1-4 against conference rivals this year. The roster re-construction is going to require patience and unfortunately for Dan McKellar, that means more trying times ahead.
By Ben Smith, RugbyPass