It seems an awfully long time ago now that we were worried about rugby games being played in near 37 Degree temperatures, while smoke and ash drifted through the air at the end of January. They were certainly worthy concerns at the time given what had transpired across the Australian summer, but how the story of 2020 has changed since the Brumbies defeated the Reds 27-24 in Canberra on Jan. 31.
In a weird way, however, it seems apt that the two sides should close out the Super Rugby season for 2020, albeit it in an ad-hoc competition created amid the coronavirus pandemic. The Brumbies were the standout Australian team in the seven rounds that were completed of Super Rugby proper, while something seems to have clicked for the Reds over the last month and they are finishing Super Rugby AU with a withering surge.
And so, we return to GIO Stadium, where 6000 lucky fans have been granted permission to cheer on the Brumbies - and perhaps the odd expat-Queenslander will pop up in a Reds jersey - to witness the championship match. It is also the last chance for players to make an impression on Wallabies coach Dave Rennie after he named a 44-man squad last Sunday; several key positional battles could determine the difference between winning a start in Bledisloe I, or instead biding your time on the bench.
The Brumbies had wrapped up top spot and the home final ahead of their final round clash with the Reds, but were then promptly beaten by Brad Thorn's side 28-8. It certainly wasn't the ideal way to enter a decider, but the week off has given coach Dan McKellar time to really examine the make-up of his best starting XV. Before that defeat, the Brumbies' only loss in Super Rugby AU had come on a wet Sydney night, away to the Rebels.
Meanwhile for the Reds, it all could have come crashing down with the 45-12 hammering they endured at the hands of the Waratahs in Sydney in early August. Blown off the paddock via six first-half tries, the Reds could have seen their season spiral away, but they instead rallied a week later to see off the Rebels, then walloped the Force a week later and then rounded out the regular season with the aforementioned defeat of the Brumbies.
The Brumbies have made a raft of changes from the team beaten by the Reds last time out, with four new faces in the starting team. Coach Dan McKellar has put faith in young Noah Lolesio after the fly-half missed the team's last five games with injury, pairing him with the recalled Joe Powell in the halves. Up front, Lachie McCaffrey gets the nod over Rob Valetini at blindside while Murray Douglas is preferred at lock instead of Darcy Swain.
Reds coach Brad Thorn has been forced into one change and made a judgement call on another, with Hunter Paisami and JP Smith the additions to the starting XV. Chris Feauai-Sautia's injury means Jordan Petaia - who was cleared of concussion - shifts to the wing, with Paisami coming into the No. 13 jersey. JP Smith is a straight swap for Harry Hoopert at loosehead prop.
Brumbies: Tom Banks, Andy Muirhead, Tevita Kuridrani, Irae Simone, Tom Wright, Noah Lolesio, Joe Powell; Pete Samu, Will Miller, Lachie McCaffrey, Cadeyrn Neville, Murray Douglas, Allan Alaalatoa, Folau Fainga'a, Scott Sio.
Replacements: Connal McInerney, James Slipper, Tom Ross, Nick Frost, Rob Valetini, Nic White, Bayley Kuenzle, Solomone Kata.
Reds: Jock Campbell, Jordan Petaia, Hunter Paisami, Hamish Stewart, Filipo Daugunu, James O'Connor, Tate McDermott; Harry Wilson, Fraser McReight, Liam Wright, Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, Angus Blyth, Taniela Tupou, Brandon Paenga-Amosa, JP Smith.
Replacements: Josh Nasser, Harry Hoopert, Ruan Smith, Tuaina Taii Tualima, Angus Scott-Young, Moses Sorovi, Bryce Hegarty, Jack Hardy
How the Brumbies win it
Dan McKellar's side have the ability to strangle teams at home by absorbing pressure on the defensive side and then stinging their opposition from the simplest mistake or defensive error. We saw it in their last two matches in Canberra, against the Waratahs and Force, when both teams had more than enough possession and territory but were unable to turn time in the Brumbies' half into scoreboard pressure. At the heart of the Brumbies' run to the top of the ladder has been a forward pack that will worry the Reds at set-piece - they upset the lineout a fortnight ago in Brisbane - and has already put the scrummaging technique of Taniela Tupou on the referee's radar. Their driving lineout maul is also a huge weapon, though hardly a secret at this point in the season. The big question for the Brumbies will be whether Lolesio can pick up where he left off earlier in the year. The fly-half has overcome his hamstring injury but surely must be short on match fitness, and will no doubt feel the full force of a dogged Reds back-row. If he settles early, however, and exerts control on the match then the Reds will find it very difficult to run the Brumbies down, particularly given the hosts' stacked bench.
How the Reds win it
It's all about defence for the Reds and continuing a superb recent record when they have conceded just three tries in their last four games. They have also enjoyed an average 85 percent tackle percentage across that stretch, after conceding 45 points to the Waratahs in the game that preceded their four-match winning run. The other key change for the Reds has been the continued improvement of Jock Campbell, Filipo Daugunu, Fraser McReight and, perhaps most tellingly, Tupou. The Wallabies prop has been setting the platform up front with consecutive 80-minute involvements; breaking the line as the clock winds down just as he did for Daugunu's try last week. McReight, meanwhile, gets on the ball in the tireless Reds back-row and James O'Connor is a different fly-half to the player who appeared still to be finding his feet as a playmaker at the start of the year. If the Reds continue their excellent defensive form, limit penalties inside their own half, then they have the weapons to worry the Brumbies out wide.
Odds: [tab.com.au]: Brumbies $1.62 [-2.5 $1.85]; Reds $2.30 [+2.5 $1.95]
Just three and two points separated these two teams in their two earlier meetings in Canberra this year, and this contest again seems poised to go down to the wire. But it is the Reds who enter Saturday night's decider with wind in their sails, a youthful outfit who have had to overcome quite a bit this season - including the walkout of three key squad members. If the Queenslanders get into the grind with the Brumbies and absorb their fresh legs off the bench in the second half, then the Reds have the X-factor players to strike late and claim the inaugural Super Rugby AU crown. Reds by 1.