Greg Growden hails expansive Super Rugby
July 21, 2014
Henry Speight and the Brumbies played with great adventure against the Chiefs © Getty Images
There's one way to keep warm on a glacial Canberra winter night: run, run, run. And the Brumbies did just that - manicuring their game plan and opting for a relentless attacking approach - to stay alive in the Super Rugby play-offs and provide hope that their semi-final against New South Wales Waratahs on Saturday could be one of the most memorable of running rugby extravaganzas.
Finals football can often be excruciating viewing - with many teams, so obsessed about make mistakes, opting to be conservative. Thankfully on the weekend, we had four teams all fighting for survival who all believed that aggressive football that demanded fast phase play and constantly pushing their attack to both sidelines was the way to go. Through that came two invigorating, high-quality matches in which the winners were rewarded for their endeavour and the losers, while dejected, left with their reputations intact because they had played with the right spirit.
Andy Withers, Brett McKay and Brittany Mitchell discuss the Super Rugby finals%]
The Brumbies' crowd figures this year have been pretty dismal, but their followers who braved hypothermia by heading into the open-door freezer otherwise known as GIO Stadium can't exactly complain about value for money - especially during the latter part of the season. The Brumbies began the year adhering to a lot of 2013 coach Jake White's philosophies - revolving around constant kicking and pinning their opponents down in their own half - the longer the competition has gone on the more obvious it is that the shackles have been loosened.
With their season suddenly looking shaky, Stephen Larkham and Laurie Fisher, who had taken over from White, went back to what had worked for the Brumbies for so many years: smart ball-in-hand play that required wise midfielders, great finishers and industrious workers up front. This wasn't surprising because Larkham for years had played under such a structure and enjoyed the benefits, which included Super Rugby titles. Now it was time to use Henry Speight and co in a similar vein to how Joe Roff and co used to terrorise opponents.
Outright attack was on show against Western Force in the final round of the home-and-away campaign, and with it came a comfortable victory. Larkham and Fisher would have realised such an approach against the Chiefs could be hazardous as the New Zealanders are one of the greatest counter-attackers going around, seizing on any opposition blunder; but they persisted, clearly giving the Brumbies the directive to try to run the opposition off their legs in the opening quarter.
Brumbies 32-30 Chiefs (video available only in Australia)
The expansion plan worked, with the Chiefs finding it near impossible to get the ball until just before half-time, by which time the Brumbies had constantly enjoyed 10-plus phase possession and, with it, had scored three tries that involved a flourish of passes, excellent back-up and constant sweeps across the ground.
Then with a 19-point lead, it became a waiting game for the Brumbies as the Chiefs were bound to retaliate. They did, and went so close to claiming victory, but in the end the Brumbies' defence at crucial moments just held them out.
Sharks 31-27 Highlanders (Australia only)%]
The Sharks-Highlanders elimination final in Durban had the threat of being more down market, especially with the New Zealanders having to cope with the tyranny of distance. But, no, the Highlanders were as keen as anyone to bop until they dropped, playing with zeal and panache, producing several mighty tries that were as good as any seen during this year's tournament. This forced the Sharks to open up, and they responded with some fine moments of open football; even though the Sharks' pack won them the game, the South Africans also showed that out wide they can do much, much more than just boot the ball downfield.
Still of all the teams that played over the weekend, the Highlanders deserve the highest level of applause. In 12 months, they have transformed themselves to vie, with the Waratahs, as the most improved team in this year's competition.
In recent seasons, the Highlanders were a bit of a mess. They had the names, but lacked focus. This year, they tried to stun opponents by opting for adventure. And so they rose from second-last in 2013, when they won only three games, to provoking their 2014 elimination final opponents until the final seconds.
And with the Highlanders' success comes a lesson: rewards come not just to those who wait, but also to those who are prepared to take risks.
Highlanders fans have had much to enjoy in 2014 © Getty Images
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