The first of the 2016 Super Rugby quarter-finals pit the Australian Conference winners against the defending Champions.
This a rather interesting clash as you have a Brumbies side whose game plan is tailor-made for playoffs rugby taking on a Highlanders side who are by far and away the best tactical kicking side in the tournament.
This promises to be an absolute classic, so make sure you’ve got those sick notes prepared for Friday morning as the last place you’ll want to be is stuck at work!
Brumbies v Highlanders | Friday 22 July | GIO Stadium | 10:00 (CAT)
To Win (80 Mins)
Brumbies 17/10 | Draw 20/1 | Highlanders 5/10
Brumbies (+4.5) 9/10 | Highlanders (-4.5) 9/10
Despite winning the Australian Conference, 2016 has been a rather poor year for the Brumbies. Steven Larkham’s side have failed to really assert themselves in the competition with their driving maul being the only real facet of their game worth noting. Their backs have looked rather devoid of ideas on attack while their tight forwards are about as mobile as an 80-year-old with a walking stick.
These two issues have contributed to the Brumbies developing a rather visible Achilles heel; concession of ball at the breakdown. Their lateral running lines have made them sitting ducks for opposition defenders while their forwards’ lack of pace has seen them outdone at the breakdown time and time again.
There are mitigating factors in the Brumbies sudden loss of breakdown nuance. The absence of David Pocock and the heavy workload that his partner in crime, Scott Fardy, has had to carry have made the Brumbies a rather spent force at ruck time.
Fardy, is by no means an out and out fetcher but he’s had to assimilate to the role of 'breakdown kingpin' after David Pocock sustained an eye injury during Australia’s June series against England. Fardy’s job would be made a lot easier if his tight forwards were a more mobile bunch. They really aren’t though, with only Steven Moore’s work rate worth mentioning.
While Pocock has only been absent for the Brumbies last three matches subsequent to sustaining the eye injury, he also missed a large chunk of the middle part of the Brumbies season due to a three-match suspension for a neck grab on Chiefs eight Michael Leitch. Pocock's suspension coincided with one of the Brumbies worst ever defeats - a 40-10 home drubbing at the hands of the Crusaders. Thankfully for the hosts, Pocock will make a return to the starting XV having been given the go ahead by an eye specialist.
While the Brumbies pack’s efforts at the breakdown have been rather futile, it’s the inability of their flyhalf and inside centre to spark attacks that would really be worrying Steven Larkham. The Brumbies' mentor was one of the key men in Australia’s golden generation who won the 1999 World Cup. His passing skills and rugby brain made him one of the most dangerous attacking weapons on the planet. For him to witness Christian Lealiifona put in such inhibited displays, must be hurting the Aussie great.
It’s not only Lealiifona who is struggling to spark things, the returning Matt Touma has also looked devoid of ideas at inside centre.
These two men really need to get their acts together this weekend as the Highlanders centre pairing of Fekitoa and Faddes are harder to break through than a brick wall – just ask the Waikato Chiefs midfield about that one!
The Brumbies do have a few attacking weapons that could reap dividends this Friday. In the backline, Wallaby outside centre Tevita Kurindrani is capable of bashing his way through a few defenders while fullback Aidan Toua is lethal in broken play.
The Brumbies ‘piece de resistance’ is their driving maul, though. If the Brumbies can milk a few penalties and their kickers can find their touch, then they may be able to drive their way over for a few five pointers.
The defending champions have been immaculate this term with their controlled kicking game seeing them to some spectacular victories including last week’s 25-15 victory over the Chiefs.
While pivot Lima Sopoaga has had a Midas touch with the boot this term, it has been the Highlanders chase line that has ensured everything young Lima’s boot touches turns to gold.
Malakai Fekitoa and Matt Faddes have led the line well, while wingers Patrick Osbourne and Waisake Naholo have kept their discipline and ensured the Highlanders line structure remains intact when chasing kicks.
Chris Boyd’s men aren’t just a one-trick pony who rely solely on solid tactical kicking to win them games. No, far from it, in fact!
They have a solid tight five who are capable of mixing it up with the Brumbies heavyweights, while their loose trio has been sublime. Their backline is also a huge threat with ball in hand, especially the axis of Sopoaga, Fekitoa and Faddes.
The trio all possess extremely differing playing styles with Sopoaga bringing the flair – remember that no-look reverse chip against the Hurricanes - and composure, Fekitoa bringing the brute strength and defensive organisation, and Faddes complimenting both of them with sublime angle running and the acceleration of a cheetah.
Factor in the world class quality of Ben and Aaron Smith and you’ve got a backline capable of tearing the most organised of defences apart, let alone a Brumbies defensive line that has so many holes in it that it looks like it’s been peppered with an AK-47.
The Stats That Matter
The Highlanders managed to finish the regular season with a points differential of positive 149 while the Brumbies could only muster up a positive 99 tally. The Brumbies conceded 326 points which was 53 more than the Highlanders did.
The Highlanders won 11 of their 15 round robin fixtures while the Brumbies won 10. The two sides met back in April with the Highlanders running out 23-10 victors.
Highlanders pivot Lima Sopoaga has a 75.3% percent goal kicking success rate while Christian Lealiifano has 78.9%. The Brumbies pivot is susceptible to the occasional howler when under pressure, however, as that shocking conversion attempt against the Stormers last year attests to.
Last Five Head To Head Results
2016 Highlanders 23-10 Brumbies (Highlanders Home)
2015 Brumbies 31-18 Highlanders (Brumbies Home)
2013 Highlanders 19-30 Brumbies (Highlanders Home)
2012 Brumbies 33-26 Highlanders (Brumbies Home)
2011 Highlanders 26-10 Brumbies (Brumbies Home)
Verdict: Highlanders (-4.5) 9/10
My money is firmly on the Highlanders here. They are a much better side in all areas and I really can’t see the Brumbies even giving them a run. Wait for the minus handicap to come out and jump on the Highlanders to clear it!