Brumbies coach Dan McKellar has roasted Super Rugby officials for a January start to the season, saying the “dangerous” decision pays little respect for player welfare.
The match between the Brumbies and Reds kicked off in 39 degree heat in Canberra, where a state of emergency was declared on Friday as bushfires raged in national park less than 30km from GIO Stadium.
While Super Rugby introduced an air quality policy during the week that could have stopped the game if the wind pushed smoke from the fires north into the city, the intense heat was a seemingly lesser consideration, leading only to extra drink breaks and concessions such as ice vests being allowed for the players during breaks in the match.
“We talk about player welfare, we’ve got big men having to run around – they’re in good condition but I’m hoping round one next year is not anywhere near January 31,” McKellar said.
“You’re limited with your preparation time and it’s dangerous, it really is.
“It’s not for me to make those decisions but I’m sure that the people that make them will have a look at what next year looks like.”
It was the Brumbies turning up the heat on the Reds in the second half though, scoring three of their four tries in the second period to fight back from a 10-point halftime deficit to notch a 27-24 win over the Reds in a clash between the teams many believe to be the leading contenders for the Australian conference.
Brumbies captain Allan Alaalatoa also called for change next season – something that is likely with the axing of the Sunwolves removing the conference system from the competition – but was philosophical about this year.
“It is what it is this year. It was just a good effort from the boys,” he said.
“We knew it was going to be hot, that’s something that we looked at early in the week.
“I’m happy with our staff – they did everything they could to try and help us out there but at the end of the day, the boys had to dig deep and they were able to do that.”
Tries to Tom Wright and Folau Faingaa in the third quarter levelled the game up before fullback Tom Banks – minutes after being stricken by cramp – beat several Reds defenders to hand the Brumbies a seven-point lead inside the final 15 minutes.
When Noah Lolesio knocked over a penalty in the 75th minute, the game seemed over but the Reds, who were plauged by handing errors and poor kicking in the second term – hit back with a converted try to Harry Wilson and had an opportunity to steal the game late before Moses Sorovi knocked on after the siren.
Reds coach Brad Thorn’s disappointment was tempered by his side’s fight but he lamented their inability to capitalise on their early dominance.
“What I saw out there tonight was things I like seeing,” Thorn said.
“I like seeing the continuity, keeping the ball alive and the support; I like seeing them initially rattled a bit and then composure and consolidating.
“I like seeing some of the ball movement, the shapes, some of the execution.
“But probably that thing around those close games is just that ruthlessness. There’s a ruthlessness in professional sport around once you’ve got a lead – that saying foot on the throat – and just playing that solid rugby that builds pressure.
“Sometimes when things are going well it can be tempting to try all sorts of things but just building the pressure (is the key).
“It’s something we can learn from. Credit to the Brumbies, I felt like they regained and then they did that back to us in that second half.
“Often you learn better from disappointments and next time you take stuff on board. We can look at that and get excited about ripping into next week.”
McKellar praised his team’s ability to fight back and the poise of debutant flyhalf Noah Lolesio.
“I thought they were very brave,” McKellar said.
“First of all, the Reds were good. We were dominant the first 20 minutes dominated and they swung the momentum.
“We had a couple of issues there around set-piece that we spoke about at halftime and then we just spoke about duplicating the first 20 minutes.
“I think we’re in really good condition this year and we saw the fruits of that in the second half.”
Lolesio was a Reds target in his Super Rugby debut and while he made some errors early, such as kicking the ball dead with the Brumbies in good shape to attack, he bounced back to lead his team around the park.
“I’ve said all week he’s a pretty calm and composed kid and nothing rattles him or worries him too much,” McKellar said.
He did some really good things out there tonight and he’ll continue to learn and grow and get better and better as a footballer and someone who’s got to direct us around the park.
“For the most part of that second half, we managed to give him a decent platform – our lineout was better, our maul started to get some dominance, so there was a good platform for him to work off.”
The Reds are sweating on the fitness of hooker Brandon Paenga-Amosa for their trip to South Africa and Argentina after he limped off the field with an ankle injury and was sent to hospital for scans.
The Brumbies scored early through Irae Simone, the inside centre running on to a great pass from captain Allan Alaalatoa following a storming run from league convert Solomone Kata.
The Reds were their own worst enemies in the opening stages, failing to control the ball and struggling to maintain enough possession long enough to even leave their own half in the opening 10 minutes.
When they found some continuity though, the Reds quickly pushed into the opposition half with former Brumby Henry Speight racing over to score and complete a unique feat – becoming the first player in Super Rugby to own a try against every team in the competition.
The Reds finished the stronger in the half, Hegarty knocking over a penalty and then finishing a multi-phase drive to cross just before halftime, with his conversion giving the Reds a 17-7 lead at the break.
The Brumbies started the second half as they had the first, scoring after just six minutes when their two league converts showed their strength in attack and defence.
A bone-rattling tackle from Kata forced a Reds turnover about 30m out from their own line and when they spun it wide, Tom Wright, who had a flirtation with league last year, was able to drag Isaac Lucas over the line with him to score.
The Brumbies played with renewed urgency in the second term, while Reds errors – especially form a poor kicking game – continued to pile pressure on the visitors.
The Brumbies took full advantage, pushing the ball deep for a lineout and rolling maul from which Folau Faingaa scored to lock the match up.
But it was a piece of individual brilliance from Tom Banks with just under 15 minutes remaining that handed the Brumbies the lead.
An offside penalty against the Reds in the 75th minute then gave the Brumbies a 10-point lead but the Reds hit back almost immediately, with Harry Wilson scoring to cut the margin back to three points.
But a low percentage option from James O’connor – an attempted chip kick inside his own half – handed the ball back to the Brumbies who wound down the clock as much as they could before Wilson scored late to give Queensland a sniff.
ACT BRUMBIES 27
Tries: Simone, Wright, Faingaa, Banks
Cons: Lolesio 2
QUEENSLAND REDS 24
Tries: Speight, Hegarty, Wilson
Cons: Hegarty 3