Season 2017 shapes as a truly intriguing year for Australia’s most successful Super Rugby franchise.
After winning the Australian Conference last year and representing Australia as its only Super Rugby team in the finals, the Brumbies were knocked out by an in-form Highlanders team out to defend their title, albeit in controversial circumstances.
Despite their success, the Brumbies have slipped under the radar again and that’s just how coach Stephen Larkham likes it.
Whether Larkham can overcome the loss of his two most experienced forwards while managing a halves pairing that have never played together remains to be seen but as perennial overachievers it would not shock if he managed exactly that.
The last time the Brumbies faced a similar crossroads they were under the watchful eye of Jake White in 2012.
That season produced several breakout stars and future Wallabies, including Scott Fardy and new captain Sam Carter, but the team froze up in the final round against the cellar-dwelling Blues and fell short of the finals stints that lay ahead of them in 2013 and beyond.
INS + OUTS
IN: Nic Mayhew (Blues), Saia Fainga’a (Reds), Chris Alcock (Force), Tom Cusack (Sevens), Rob Valetini (Melbourne Harlequins), Lolo Fakaosilea (Reds), Ryan Lonergan (Tuggeranong Vikings), Wharenui Hawera (Southland, NZ), Anthony Fainga’a (Reds), Kyle Godwin (Force), Tom Banks (Reds).
OUT:Albert Anae (Mitsubishi Dynaboars), Ruan Smith (Toyota Verblitz), Stephen Moore (Reds), David Pocock (sabbatical), Ita Vaea (retired), Michael Dowsett (Southland), Matt Toomua (Leicester Tigers), Robbie Coleman (Force), Joe Tomane (Montpellier), Michael Wells (Waratahs).
Christian Lealiifano (indefinite), Tomas Cubelli (knee), Lausii Taliauli (knee).
Kyle Godwin - by the length of the Flemington straight.
Larkham has spoken about how highly he rates Hawera as a flyhalf but Godwin is a major bonus for a team that is missing the experience of Moore, Pocock, Toomua and Tomane from their team sheet.
With Cubelli out for the season and Hawera set to step in at 10, Godwin, along with Aidan Toua at 15, will play major roles for the Brumbies as second playmakers outside a halves pairing that won’t have played together come Round 1 against the Crusaders in Christchurch.
MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER
Scott Fardy. As industrious as any flanker to pull on a Wallaby jersey in recent memory, Fardy will not have Pocock by his side as a foil in 2016. While Carter has been handed the captaincy, Fardy will be pushed to lead with exemplary actions on field.
Teams will now have more bodies to throw at Fardy and fellow ball fetcher Jarrad Butler with Pocock out of the frame and the pair must be able to cope with that attention to apply their trademark breakdown pressure on the defensive side of the ball.
With Robbie Coleman and Joe Tomane out of the picture, Dargaville shapes as the hot favourite to partner Henry Speight on the wing.
The 24-year-old has reportedly bounced back from a shoulder injury that he suffered in the first round of the NRC in top knick.Dargaville has a touch of Nick Cummins about him in the way he takes the ball into contact, hunts work infield and pops up at exactly the right place and exactly the right time.
What he may lack in acceleration he makes up with a sharp fend on both arms, often brushing the first tackler with ease.
If he is able to stay injury free, look for him to take some part in Michael Cheika’s squad come the June Test series.
WHAT THE COACH SAYS
Larkham has drawn similarities to this team and the late 1990s, early 2000s Brumbies teams which he starred in.
“The environment that they’re training in, with a really good group of guys that are pushing each other really hard, it’s similar to what we had there back then,” he told RUGBY.com.au.
“There is a strong belief with this group, not only collectively with one another but also individually so guys have made sure they are ready to play their best possible rugby for the club," - Stephen Larkham
Larkham agreed his side had slipped under the public radar.
“Internally we are very confident but there is certainly plenty of media focusing on some other teams,” he said.
“We just have to go about our work and wait for the games to start.”
WHAT'S A PASS MARK?
Tough to say given the high squad turnover but anything outside of a finals berth would be considered a disappointment in Canberra and they should be judged accordingly.
There is still a really solid forward pack here and the coaching is never going to be an issue.The fate of this team will rest on its halves.
If Powell and Hawera click, the Brumbies could shock anyone who has written them off.
9th. They'll either miss the finals on points difference or fall one game short.