What lies ahead: Brumbies

In part four of our look at what lies ahead for the Lions Down Under, we're assessing the state of play at Australia's most successful Super Rugby side, the Brumbies. [more]

What lies ahead: Brumbies

In part four of our look at what lies ahead for the Lions Down Under, we’re assessing the state of play at Australia’s most successful Super Rugby side, the Brumbies.

The Australian Capital Territories outfit host the Lions at the Canberra Stadium on Tuesday June 18 in the last warm-up fixture before the Test series with the Wallabies begins in Brisbane.

And while the opening international will be at the forefront of everyone’s minds by the time the Brumbies clash comes around, Lions head coach Warren Gatland and co won’t be expecting anything like an easy ride in game six.

It’s highly unlikely that Gatland will risk any of his favoured Test team for this particular encounter and Robbie Deans will no doubt place similar restrictions on Brumbies boss Jake White, yet history suggests we could have another classic in the making.

Last-gasp heroics saw the Lions home when these two sides met in 2001, as Britain and Ireland’s elite somehow registered their final victory of the tour having trailed 22-10 at half-time. Austin Healy’s 80th-minute try and Matt Dawson’s match-winning conversion provided the most magical moments in what has to be one of the most pulsating matches on any recent Lions tour.

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The drama began well before kick off and lasted long after the 80 minutes were over, with Dawson's pre-match diary entries causing uproar on both sides of the equator and Healey's confrontation with Justin Harrison following each of his two tries hogging the headlines in the build up to the second and third Tests.

It was an emotional night for everyone involved, with a supposedly split Lions squad showing the kind of uncompromising team spirit so closely associated with the greatest touring side sport has to offer.

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Matt Dawson's conversion gave the Lions a 30-28 win against the Brumbies in 2001

And such a mammoth event hasn’t been a one off against the Brumbies, either. A similar situation unfolded 12 years earlier when an even more stirring second-half comeback got the Lions back on track on their previous visit to Oz.

Donal’s Donuts – the midweek team led by Ireland lock Donal Lenihan – could easily have collapsed after falling behind by 10 points at the break just days after the Test team had been walloped by the Wallabies. But instead of giving up the ghost and accepting their fate, the dirt trackers responded magnificently to run out 41-25 victors and give the entire squad a boost that would push them on to a 2-1 series success.

It’s asking a lot for a repeat of such superb games this time around, but the fact that the Brumbies are unlikely to lose as many stars to the Test scene as either the Reds or the Waratahs could well mean that the Lions have to show the same spirit and togetherness that saw them through in ’89 and ’01. Anything less and Canberra could be celebrating a victory that would come close to rivaling their Super Rugby winning triumphs of the early noughties.

History

The Brumbies are the only Australian side to have won the Super Rugby crown on more than one occasion and were the country’s only overall winners until the Reds joined them with their own success in 2011.

Tournament victories in 2001 and 2004 were supplemented by three finals defeats and a semi-final exit as star names like George Gregan, George Smith and Stephen Larkham made the Brumbies regular contenders in the southern hemisphere’s top club competition.

Things haven’t been quite so rosy in recent years, though, with the Brumbies having failed to make the knockout stages for the past eight seasons. They finished fifth, sixth, fifth, ninth, seventh and sixth before the latest expansion, with the first 15-team campaign ending in a humble 13th-place showing. 

Last time out

The Brumbies have never beaten the Lions but last season’s Super XV showing suggests they’ll have a decent chance of creating history this time around. Only a shock home defeat to the Blues in the final round of regular season action prevented them from making the play-offs as the Reds pipped them to the Australian Conference title.

Their seventh-placed finish overall didn’t quite hit the heights of yester year but it did at least suggest that better times are on the horizon. A total of 10 wins in 16 games was their best in any Super season and that crucial 30-14 loss to the Blues was the only occasion they failed to pick up at least a losing bonus point.

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Centre Pat McCabe is one of eight Brumbies in the current Wallaby squad

Ones to watch

David Pocock

Losing a player of the potential of Michael Hooper would be a huge blow to any side but when you replace him with one of the world’s best performers suddenly letting him go doesn’t seem like such a strange move. Capturing the signature of David Pocock from the Western Force was a massive fillip for the Brumbies and one which they hope will pay major dividends in 2013.

By far the most-talked about pre-season signing until Israel Folau’s cross-code switch to the Waratahs, Pocock had been linked with a host of other sides, both at home and overseas, but Canberra always appeared his preferred destination. The chance to link up with head coach Jake White was too good to turn down for a player who rivals Richie McCaw as the best openside in the global game. Having excelled in Perth despite spending most of his time with the Force on the back foot, one can only wonder what Pocock can achieve week in, week out if the Brumbies can regularly gain parity up front.

And while it’s as near as certain that Pocock won’t be facing the Lions with his new franchise, his presence throughout the early part of the season could well breed a winning mentality at the Brumbies that will make them even harder to beat come mid June.

Christian Lealiifano

Despite a shockingly long Wallaby injury list last term, few players can count themselves as unfortunate as Christian Lealiifano in 2012. The Brumbies playmaker was outstanding in the early part of the campaign as he finally started to show the necessary consistency to accompany his undoubted and much heralded talents.

The 25-year-old made his Brumbies bow back in 2008 but had failed to hit the heights his potential promised until White brought the best out of him. His silky skills, huge boot and creative approach saw him pressing for a Wallaby spot until he suffered a horrific ankle injury against the Waratahs in May. He sat out the rest of the season as a result and missed out on a first senior international cap at a time when the Wallabies were hhmmming and aahhhing about who to play at 10 before and after Quade Cooper’s latest knee problems.

With Deans still seemingly undecided on who will wear the fly-half shirt against the Lions this summer, plenty of people are tipping Lealiifano to make the step up if he can repeat his club form this spring. And while White threw a spanner into the works earlier this week when he suggested that the Auckland-born star would spend more time at centre than outside-half thanks to the presence of Matt Toomua, the new season is still lining up to be the biggest of Lealiifano’s career.

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Christian Lealiifano will hope to reproduce the form he showed early last year

Tom Cox

The lightning quick left wing only made his Brumbies debut last year but is already being tipped for big things. Still yet to appear in a Super XV fixture, Cox showed glimpses of his raw potential in the mid-week clash with Wales in June last year.

He faces a tough task to see off the likes of Joe Tomane and Henry Speight for a spot out wide but the fact that he has bulked up considerably in the off season will help his cause no end. Seen as ‘the fast but skinny kid’ in 2012, Cox is looking to become a Brumbies regular starter having failed to break into the first team last term.

Cox is currently fighting fit and is therefore a step ahead of many of his competitors according to backs coach Larkham, who has been full of praise for the 23-year-old over recent months. Originally schooled in Australian Rules Football, Cox’s knowledge of the sport wasn’t quite up to scratch last year but Larkham says he is now'a totally different beast,’ with his ‘communication and understanding of rugby (having) gone through the roof’.

If he gets a run in the side and takes his training form on to the playing field, we could be hearing a lot more from him this year. And although he’d be hard pushed to become a Wallaby by the time the Lions come calling, Cox could well have gone from fringe player to key performer for the Brumbies prior to their clash with Gatland’s troops in four-and-a-half months’ time.

Coaching staff

South African Jake White is the man at the head of the Brumbies coaching hierarchy having moved to Canberra in 2011.

The 49-year-old led the Springboks to World Cup glory in 2007 after being appointed to his country’s top job three years earlier. He took the Boks from sixth to first in the IRB World Rankings, secured the Tri Nations title in his first year in charge and won 36 of his 54 Tests for a success ratio of 67 per cent.

White was twice voted IRB International Coach of the Year and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in October 2011. Also a junior World Cup winner with the Baby Boks in 2002, White had a major impact on the Brumbies’ fortunes in his debut season with the franchise, taking them to the brink of the play-offs when critics had given them little hope of such an achievement before the campaign started.

White has a strong knowledge of the British and Irish game having done consultancy work at Saracens and London Irish and he was heavily linked with a role at the RFU both before and after his move to Australia.

The Brumbies backroom staff also has plenty of links with the game on these shores, with Laurie Fisher and Dean Benton both having had stints in the UK and Ireland.

Forwards coach Fisher spent three years with Munster, working alongside the likes of Lions tourists Paul O’Connell, Donncha O’Callaghan and Ronan O’Gara. Fisher headed to Thomond Park in July 2008 and picked up two Celtic League titles in 2009 and 2011 before returning to his homeland later that year.

The former Australia U21s boss has a lengthy association with the Brumbies having been part of the Academy coaching set up before eventually being promoted to head coach in 2005 until his switch to Ireland.

Fisher’s main area of expertise is at the breakdown, with the 54-year-old having been credited with turning Michael Hooper from a promising youth player into a senior international after just one season under his stewardship.

Athletic performance coach Benton enjoyed a short stint as head of strength and conditioning at Leicester after the departure of 2009 Lion Craig White. Like Fisher, he worked with a whole host of Lions in his time at Welford Road but returned to Australia to rejoin rugby league outfit the Brisbane Broncos.

Benton left the Broncos for a second time in 2010 before linking up with White ahead of pre-season training for the 2012 Super Rugby campaign.

The fourth and final member of the Brumbies’ frontline coaching set up is well known to Lions fans having faced the tourists as a player back in ’01. Backs coach Larkham established a reputation as of one of the best fly-halves of the modern era on his way to collecting 102 caps across an 11-year international career.

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Wallaby legend Stephen Larkham is part of the Brumbies coaching team

Larkham was a World Cup winner in 1999 and twice a Super Rugby winner with the Brumbies. He is held in such high esteem in the ACT that he and former halfback partner Gregan have a stand named after them at the Canberra Stadium.

But although Larkham achieved all there is to achieve in the game, he does have unfinished business with the Lions. The 38-year-old missed the decisive third Test with nerve damage in his shoulder 12 years ago and would no doubt love to make amends by celebrating another famous victory on June 18. 

Brumbies squad for 2013

Forwards: Ben Alexander, Fotu Auelua, Sam Carter, Colby Faingaa, Scott Fardy, Peter Kimlin, Stephen Moore, Ben Mowen, Ruaidhri Murphy, Dan Palmer, David Pocock, Leon Power, Siliva Siliva, Scott Sio, Ita Vaea

Backs: Robbie Coleman, Tom Cox, Zack Holmes, Tevita Kuridrani, Christian Lealiifano, Pat McCabe, Jesse Mogg, Ian Prior, Clyde Rathbone, Andrew Smith, Henry Speight, Joe Tomane, Matt Toomua, Nic White

The Lions in Canberra:

As Canberra was only established in 1913, the Lions have only appeared in Australia's capital city on four occasions. The outbreak of the First and Second World Wars ensured their first match in Canberra didn't take place until 1950, with that fixture and the following three in 1966, 1989 and 2001 all resulting in Lions victories.

P 4 W 4

1950: New South Wales Combine Country 3 Lions 47

1966: New South Wales Country 3 Lions 6

1989: ACT Brumbies 25 Lions 41

2001: ACT Brumbies 28 Lions 30

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