2013 Season Preview: ACT BRUMBIES
by Paul Cook –
Nobody gave the ACT Brumbies a hope this time last year. After finishing 13th in the 2011 season, they parted company with their second coach in a year, lost their star player Matt Giteau overseas alongside bags of test experience with the departures of Mark Chisholm, Rocky Elsom and Stephen Hoiles. There wasn’t a lot of love going around for the Canberra based side.
Despite the arrival of World Cup winning coach Jake White, the feeling was that the Brumbies simply didn’t have enough quality or experience left on board to make any kind of impact on the competition and that opinion was given further credence to many when White made the left-field appointment of Ben Mowen – deemed surplus to requirements by the Waratahs – as his captain.
The sound of humble pie being hastily slurped across the country by media and pundits alike then, must have been music to White’s ears as his ‘rookie’ side surpassed all expectation to lead the Australian conference for almost the entire season. In the process, they unearthed major young talent in the shape of Christian Lealiifano, Joe Tomane, Jesse Mogg, Robbie Coleman and Sam Carter and Mowen’s performances and leadership brought him Wallaby recognition.
Their challenge in 2013 then, is not only to maintain those standards but surpass them, only this time, their success has bought with it a level of expectation. Can White weave his magic for a second year?
Scrum-half Nic White played his maiden Super Rugby season in 2012 and after taking a few weeks to find his feet, he adapted to such an extent that he was being talked about as the test back-up to incumbent Will Genia. After two unproductive stints in Super Rugby with the Waratahs and Force respectively, lock/flanker Scott Fardy returned from a life changing stint in Japan to grab a ‘last chance’ opportunity with both hands and end up as one of the Brumbies’ most consistent performers.
Rugby News caught up with them both recently to discuss the up-coming Super Rugby season and how they approach the competition with a level of expectancy that was painfully absent this time last year.
If anyone had told you at the start of last season that you’d go within one game of topping the conference and finals football, I’m guessing you’d have bitten their hand off. However, given the way you did perform, was there a slight sense of underachievement having put yourself in such a good position?
Nic White: “Yeah definitely, we put ourselves in a position where we were in control of our own destiny in that last game so it left a bit of a sour taste in the whole team’s mouths and the whole organisation. It certainly wasn’t a case of ‘we got within one game of the finals’, we were pretty disappointed that we let ourselves down right at the end.”
Was the team surprised at how well it all came together last year?
NW: “Not really. We got together in June the year before when Jake arrived and we were having camps and training and worked really hard and by the time we got close to the season, we’d marked down games we thought we could win. The first four games we expected to win and we did and everyone was quite surprised but in our eyes, it was just going to plan.”
Scott Fardy: “Hard work goes a long way so I wasn’t surprised in the fact that we were always going to be in games but with the way things went, yeah, probably a bit surprised but not majorly.”
Did the goal posts shift as the season progressed in terms of targets?
NW: “Yeah, definitely. As I said, we weren’t surprised after four games but when we were leading the comp and you start reading the papers, I guess the goal posts did move a little bit and all of a sudden it became about making the finals and giving this comp a shake. You have to deal with things like injuries and we had quite a few across the season so the goal posts moved on us quite a few times but nonetheless, we still thought going into that last game that we had the team to make the finals but things didn’t go according to plan.”
This will be Jake Whites’s second year in charge, has he been mixing it up again in the off-season to keep it fresh and avoid the dreaded ‘second season’ syndrome?
NW: “We’ve spoken about that second season syndrome and hopefully put a plan in place to avoid it. Jake’s very good at that, mixing it up in training and making sure we’re all fresh, whether it be changing up the training regime or the starting times etc. Jake’s pretty switched on with that, he knows what he’s doing, he didn’t win a World Cup before through a fluke.”
SF: “Yeah, he keeps you on your toes always Jake, he drives standards around the place very well along with Laurie Fisher and ‘Bernie’ [Stephen Larkham] as well so I don’t think there’s any danger of that kind of syndrome kicking in.”
What did he bring to the table when he arrived?
SF: “Just a very professional attitude to everything they do within the organisation. Obviously, I wasn’t there the year before so I can’t comment on that but when I got here it was just always an easy environment to work in and you get rewarded for hard work.”
NW: “He really gutted the place in terms of the staff and the squad changed quite a bit – I think there were thirteen new players – so he changed everything and we started afresh. He is really good at surrounding himself with good coaches and with Stephen Larkham, Laurie Fisher and Dean Benton – our S&C coach – we have what we’d like to think is the best in each facet of coaching. At the end of the day, Jake is the boss and what he says goes so he really stamped his authority early on, which is something that we didn’t really have for a few years before that. Everyone bought into what he had to say and we were all on the same page as we all wanted the same thing.”
You flew in completely under the radar last year with little expectation, now people are looking at you as a serious threat. Is that extra pressure and if so, is it a nice pressure to have?
SF: “I guess you could say it’s extra pressure but I think if people look at us out there, we’ve got threats all over the park so I’m not too worried about people going after us in that way. You’ve got to win big games if you want to be in finals and every game is going to be big for us again this year.”
NW: “I think it’s a nice pressure to have. Crowds are going to expect the same thing as last year, they probably didn’t expect us to come out and win or win as well as we did so there is a pressure to not only win this season but to play entertaining footy as well.”
The additions of David Pocock and Clyde Rathbone will bring a lot to the Brumbies both on and off the field won’t they?
SF: “They’re both very experienced and it’s great to have an older bloke like ‘Rath’ around especially, he’s seen a few things and what we lacked in the squad was probably a bit of maturity and a bit of life experience and ‘Rath’ brings that to the squad. ‘Poey’ is obviously just a quality human and a quality footballer at the same time.”
The British & Irish Lions tour will obviously have an effect on the Australian teams throughout the first part of the season as players look to play their way into contention. Do you think that will see a lift in competition?
NW: “Yeah, I think so. Blokes are playing for positions and because it’s a Lions tour, I think you’ll see players really step up, not just the young ones that want to become Wallabies but also, the older blokes who may have been guilty of coasting and really want to put their best foot forward in terms of cementing a spot. It is only a one in twelve year chance so it’s pretty important in any rugby player’s career and they’d love to play in it.”
What does it mean as a player to get the chance to play against the Lions, whether it’s for the Brumbies or the Wallabies?
SF: “It’s massive. I remember twelve years ago when they were here last time the vibe around Sydney where I was living and the whole country was caught up in it. If you have an opportunity in your career, not many people get that so whether it be for the Brumbies or whatever, it’d be a great honour.”
Nic, injury robbed you of a chance to wear the gold jersey last season, you must be chomping at the bit for another opportunity?
NW: “The season is just around the corner and I can’t wait. I missed that opportunity at the end of last season so I can’t wait to hopefully play some good footy and get another opportunity. That’s all I can really hope for now.”
Scott, after a couple of false starts in Super Rugby with the Tahs and the Force, it all finally clicked for you in 2012. Why?
SF: “I got a chance to play! I didn’t get a game for the other two so I just wanted a run and when I did, I was lucky enough to play well. I think some of it comes down to luck and getting coaches that appreciate the way you play and I’m lucky where I am now but I did see it as my last chance. I was just going to have a crack and see how I went and I’ve been pretty happy with how it’s turned out.”
What effect did your time in Japan have on your career, did you mature as a footballer over there?
SF: “Yeah and I think I matured as a person too. It was great to get out of Australia and do my own thing and travelling helps. Going overseas, it’s a great opportunity, it really freshens you up mentally and physically and I thoroughly enjoyed my time over there. It was good for my rugby career and I think it made me a smarter and hopefully, a better player.”
The Australian conference looks like being hugely competitive this year given the off-season moves between players and coaches, who will be your main rivals?
NW: “I think the Reds are going to be the team to beat this year. The Tahs will be good, no doubt but you’re still not entirely sure about those guys or the Rebels. You know what the Reds are going to offer and Ewen McKenzie’s no dummy up there, he’ll put together a good plan, so I think they’re still the team to beat.”
SF: Everyone will be good on their day. If you look at the Rebels, they’ve got a young emerging squad, the Tahs and Reds are always going to be good and physical and you don’t know what you can expect from the Force. People were saying the same thing about us last year so you just don’t know what’s going to happen.”
How about the across the competition generally – who do you like the look of in New Zealand and South Africa?
SF: “You can’t rule out the Sharks and Stormers, definitely the Chiefs and the Crusaders, they’re always tough. The Highlanders have recruited well, they’ve got some very senior players there that have got a lot of experience and played some pretty big matches in their careers.”
NW: “The Chiefs will be good in New Zealand and you can’t go past the Crusaders. In South Africa, I think the Stormers look pretty good, they learned a lot last year, were very good defensively and they would have worked on their attack a lot. They also won the Currie Cup, so they can perform.”