Can the Brumbies maintain the momentum?
May 25, 2000
World Cup-winning halfback pair George Gregan and Stephen Larkham, along with rugby league convert Andrew Walker at fullback, hold the key to the ACT Brumbies breaking New Zealand's hold on Super 12 title on Saturday.
The Brumbies, in their first final since losing the 1997 final to the Auckland Blues, face the Canterbury Crusaders - who are seeking to complete a hat-trick of titles. Auckland won the other two Super 12 titles.
The Brumbies, who closed ranks after a highly-publicised drinking binge in South Africa earlier in the season, finished top of the Super 12 league by overcoming the Crusaders 17-12 in a fierce top-of-the-table contest in Christchurch two weeks ago.
Walker, with 13 Super 12 tries, is rated a potential match-winner by former Wallaby Glen Ella, who coaches the ACT backs.
"He's such an instinctive player. He reacts to situations which not a lot of other players can do and he can only get better," Ella said.
Gregan, currently the best scrum-half in the world, and Larkham will be tested by the uncanny tactical kicking of All Black fly-half Andrew Mehrtens.
He contributed 22 points in the Crusaders' 37-15 win against their South Island compatriots the Otago Highlanders in last week's semi-finals.
Flying Fijian winger Marika Vunibaka is another lethal weapon for the Crusaders who will, like all New Zealand sides, be superbly drilled.
The Crusaders' hopes for a hat-trick of Super 12 titles were boosted by the return of lock Norm Maxwell who missed last week's semi-final with a calf injury.
But All Black scrum-half Justin Marshall has not recovered from a similar injury and is almost certain to be missing, although Canterbury coach Robbie Deans said Marshall would play if he proved he has recovered "100 percent" from a calf injury on Friday.
"He's still unlikely," Deans said. "But if Justin was to be 100 percent fit then he would come into the starting lineup."
New Zealand under-21 scrum-half Ben Hurst had an impressive game against the Otago Highlanders, with his crisp, quick passing a feature.
But Marshall, the most capped New Zealand scrum-half, is a seasoned campaigner and a resolute defender around the fringes.
ACT coach Jones said the Crusaders would not be damaged if Hurst replaced Marshall.
"And Maxwell is an outstanding player and he'll certainly give them a lot of drive," Jones said.
Jones said last week's struggle to beat the South African Golden Cats with the Brumbies scoring three late tries for a flattering 28-5 semi-final win had actually been a timely warning for his side.
"It was probably our worst performance in the Super 12. It was a combination of the Cats defending extremely well and we were quite nervous," he said.
"We were a little bit too conservative and worried about losing and didn't play our natural game. That was reflected in the hesitancy of our game.
"This week, we hope that will be different. When you don't play well, it's invigorating, it invigorates you to lift to greater heights the next week."
The Brumbies and Crusaders have spent the week exchanging shots over
The New Zealanders claimed the Brumbies used decoy runners in back play and illegal binding methods to gain an advantage in the scrums. The Australians claimed the Crusaders sent too many players into the lineouts.
But the Brumbies received support from South Africa coach Nick Mallett, who described their style of play as the best in the world. He said the ACT had adapted to changes in the rules.
"The way they control the tempo, the pace of the game is frightening."
Canterbury coach Deans said the Crusaders would approach the final in a positive fashion and he believed the side which "imposed its attack" would win.
But he felt the Brumbies' decoy running had "possibly taken it to the
Brumbies' captain Brett Robinson said New Zealand referee Paddy O'Brien had made it clear last week that as long as the ball carrier was able to be tackled there was no problem.
Deans will, nonethleless, still raise the issue when he sees South African referee Andre Watson before the match.
ACT squad: Forwards: Bill Young, Patricio Noriega, Ben Darwin, Tom Murphy, Jeremy Paul, David Giffin, Troy Jaques, Justin Harrison, Peter Ryan, Brett Robinson, George Smith, Radike Samo, Ipolito Fenukitau, Jim Williams. Backs: George Gregan, Travis Hall, Stephen Larkham, Joe Roff, Rod Kafer, Mark Bartholomeusz, Craig McMullen, James Holbeck, Mitch Hardy, Stirling Mortlock, Andrew Walker
Canterbury: Leon MacDonald, Marika Vunibaka, Mark Robinson, Caleb Ralph, Daryl Gibson, Andrew Mehrtens, Ben Hurst, Rob Cribb, Scott Robertson, Norm Maxwell, Todd Blackadder (captain), Reuben Thorne, Greg Somerville, Mark Hammett, Greg Feek
Reserves: Aaron Mauger, Mark Mayerhofler, Aaron Flynn, Dallas Seymour, Chris Jack, Con Barrell, Slade McFarland