FEATURE: Brumbies v Waratahs: Where a Classic Rivalry Began

Tue, 23/02/2021, 10:30 pm
Jim Tucker
by Jim Tucker
It's a rivalry as old as time - NSW Waratahs vs ACT Brumbies | Getty Images

Noah Lolesio and Will Harrison weren’t even born when the fuse was lit on the fractious rivalry between the Brumbies and NSW Waratahs.

Even devoted rugby fans who search through all the feisty on-field clashes, epic matches and off-field niggle won’t find the exact moment anywhere in the 25-year history of professional rugby.

That’s because it pre-dates the birth of Super Rugby but we’ll get to that in a minute. Saturday night’s latest edition at GIO Stadium in Canberra will remind us again that rivalries of deep feeling can sprout and flourish quickly even in the modern era. Brumbies v Waratahs.

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The rivalry is intense, it’s real and it can drag out underdog upsets. The ledger...20 wins to the Brumbies and 17 to the Waratahs....says it all about how tight it is.

For that very reason there is no way that five-eighth Lolesio and the Brumbies will be underestimating the wounded Waratahs without sidelined skipper Jake Gordon.

For those diehards of Canberra rugby, this rivalry has percolating away since all the little insults of the early 1990s, those days of disregard in Wallaby selections, being treated as poor cousins and the born-to-rule utterings they hated about NSW rugby.

The history-changing moment arrived on July 3, 1994.

The then-Canberra Kookaburras, with a young, hirsute George Gregan on board, thrashed NSW 44-28 at Sydney’s Concord Oval. A teenaged Joe Roff scored two tries. Ten NSW Wallabies were left red-faced.

Brumbies and Australian Rugby great, George Gregan | Getty Images

Prop and talisman Geoff “Duke” Didier, a young 34 at the time, boomed: “People will say NSW were flat. But we belted ‘em. One-off be buggered.”

It was a first but far from the last because the boys from Canberra were going places.

When the Brumbies were born in 1996, only half the 33-man squad were locals. The rest took on the feisty persona of misfits and rejects from the heartland rugby states.

Players like foundation lock David Giffin wore that tag like a badge of honour. There’s still wonderment from Giffin about how it’s all panned out.

He was an unwanted lock in Queensland in the mid-’90s when the Reds had the world class trio of John Eales, Garrick Morgan and Rod McCall.

‘‘Yep, I was one of the discards and misfits who headed to Canberra,’’ said Giffin of his springboard to 51 Tests and the 1999 Rugby World Cup triumph.

‘‘I signed with the Brumbies for one year with the idea of heading back to Queensland with some experience.” He stayed for nine seasons and won two Super 12 titles that Queensland peers could only dream about.

‘‘Being bagged as misfits was definitely a motivating factor behind the early success of the Brumbies,” Giffin said.

‘‘We had something to prove. It also said something about the confident attitude with the player group that we’d all taken a risk to move to Canberra.’’

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The annual clash against the Waratahs embodied everything the Brumbies were fighting for.

It was recognition, it was earning a square deal in selections and it was shaking up the established order.

“The Canberra boys felt the selectors just picked Waratahs for the Wallabies, signings from Queensland like Pat Howard, Troy Coker and ‘Giff’ didn’t like NSW anyway and a former NSW forward like Owen Finegan had a distaste for his treatment,” foundation Brumby Rod Kafer once said.

“Thrown together, we had a passionate dislike for the Waratahs. There’s the genesis right there.

“After I stopped playing, I got a better understanding of the rugby economics that spruik a successful NSW means big support, big commercial backing and big profile for the code.

“As a player, you hate the Sydney-centric thing.”

Take 1996 when the boys from Canberra discovered that one NSW player, who would never play a Test, was signed on better money by the Australian Rugby Union than Brumbies who already had.

After the first-year Brumbies were belted 44-10 in 1996, the tables were turned with a 56-9 stampede over the Waratahs in Canberra in 1997.

Hired guns like Queenslander Troy Coker helped put chest-beating Waratahs like lock John Welborn in their place as the edge between the sides grew in that game when they scuffled over the sideline.

“He was poncing around with his chest out and I might have given it to him about being a ‘two-Test veteran’,” Coker recalled.

“There was this entitlement thing around NSW rugby that the Canberra boys had a real distaste for.”

It’s easy to forget that the Brumbies were born from nothing in 1996, might have been called the ACT Dingoes or Canberra Chargers and could have bombed like any number of other sporting teams created in that era.

The Brumbies are team-sport success story in Australia in a landscape littered with far more failed ventures. Just take a look at four franchises established in the mid-1990s...rugby league’s South Queensland Crushers, basketball’s West Sydney Razorbacks, AFL’s Fremantle Dockers and the Brumbies.

The Crushers and Razorbacks died long ago and the Dockers are still chasing their first flag. By comparison, the Brumbies’ rich history now includes the 2001 and 2004 Super 12 titles, four further grand final appearances and last year’s inaugural Super Rugby AU title.

The adventurous spirit was so evident in the way the team played in their first decade as a club that ‘‘Brumbies-style’’ became a catchcry for flair and innovation.

Many have tried to distil the secret of the Brumbies, highlighting the team’s player driven code, eye for recruits and the business plan of initial coach Rod Macqueen.

Giffin nods approval at all those factors, yet offers an even simpler reason: ‘‘Any team with George Gregan and Steve Larkham at halfback and flyhalf was going to be successful if you just put reasonable players around them.

‘‘Couple them with some really good players for a number of years and you had a fair reason for the sustained success of the Brumbies in the early years.’’

If you press Giffin he’ll chuckle at any notion that rugby’s talent scouts in NSW and Queensland have become any shrewder than they were in the mid-’90s.

‘‘I remember saying that one day that flow of top-line prospects from other states would dry up but, guess what, it doesn’t,” Giffin said.

“Someone surprising always slips through the net. George Smith, Mark Gerrard and Mark Chisholm were three.”

You could say the same about today’s Brumbies Tom Banks, Irae Simone, Andrew Muirhead, Darcy Swain, Issak Fines-Leleiwasa and others.

There are always intriguing personal rivalries in Brumbies-Waratahs games. Brumbies centre Simone always wants to excel against his former club and the match-up at No.10 is another of those “mate v mate” proving grounds.

Lolesio & Harrison have been competing or playing together since Australian Schoolboys | RugbyAU Media

Lolesio and Waratahs five-eighth Will Harrison, both just 21, have been competing or playing together since Australian Schoolboys and Under-20s days.

“’Harro’ is a good mate of mine. We’ve grown up playing together so it’s awesome to see him do well at the ‘Tahs,” Lolesio said.

“I’m looking forward to playing against him.

“It’s always exciting to play against the ‘Tahs and it’s our first home game for our fans.

“We definitely expect them to be hurting and a better team than they showed us in Round One.”

Waratahs winger James Ramm definitely expects his team to improve markedly and the underdog tag sits comfortably with him.

“We like it. We’re a young team, there’s a bit about us, it’s a growing year, we’ve lost a captain, we enjoy playing an exciting brand of footy...all those remarks flow in and build us,” Ramm said.

The return of an incendiary figure like flanker Lachie Swinton for a match like this is perfect to spice things up. Brumbies-Waratahs clashes are rarely dull.

A match with unexpected twists on Saturday night will just add to the history of one of the classic rivalries in World Rugby.

The Waratahs take on the Brumbies on Saturday February 27 at GIO Stadium kicking off at 7:45pm AEDT, LIVE on Stan Sport and Nine Gem. Click here to purchase tickets.

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