Super Rugby final turns into battle of the coaches
HAMILTON, New Zealand (AP) — Two of the most astute coaches in Super Rugby turned the tournament final into a chess game on Saturday.
Jake White, the 2007 World Cup-winning Springboks coach, and assistant Laurie Fisher lifted a Brumbies team wearied by two weeks of continuous travel to one last, massive effort as they attempted to win their third Super Rugby title and first since 2004.
The Brumbies executed a carefully structured game-plan with clinical precision to lead the defending champion Chiefs 22-12 with three-quarters of the match gone.
Chiefs coach Dave Rennie and his assistant, 2011 World Cup-winning All Blacks co-coach Wayne Smith, were forced to revise their strategy to engineer a comeback that ensured the home side snatched victory with two late tries to come out on top 27-22.
The Brumbies outplayed the defending champion Chiefs in the first 60 minutes because of their more precise application of force at breakdowns, their accurate kicking game and an ability to impose and sustain pressure at vital moments.
They forced the Chiefs into errors that yielded penalties and created an intercept try to Wallabies inside center Christian Leali’ifano just before halftime, putting the Brumbies ahead 16-9 at the break.
Leali’ifano scored all of his team’s points with a try, conversion and five penalties, taking advantage of the hard work of his forwards to lift the Brumbies to a 22-12 after 58 minutes.
But the Chiefs, redirected by Rennie and Smith at halftime, fought back and managed to do what they have done throughout the season: score tries from fragmentary chances and with a minimal supply of possession. Throughout the regular season, the Chiefs won less ball than any other team in the tournament but managed to score more tries, reflecting the coaches’ ability to create more from less.
Rennie and Smith guided the Chiefs to their inaugural title last year, ending their 17-year record as one of New Zealand’s least-successful teams. Despite injuries and the loss of some key players this season, they instilled character and a sense of destiny in the Hamilton-based team that allowed them to secure the championship again.
They became the first team since the Bulls in 2010 to win back-to-back championships and are Super Rugby’s fifth multiple champions, after the Crusaders (seven titles), the Bulls (three) and the Blues and Brumbies (two each).
The Chiefs were perhaps not as classy as they were last season but were able to draw on the character they developed and which has been epitomized by their captain Craig Clarke. The Brumbies thoroughly tested the Chiefs on Saturday but, aided by an astute strategy, they managed to win against the odds.
“The Brumbies were brilliant, I thought,” Smith said. “They were tough at the breakdown. We had to change our structure at halftime. We had to get our third man to get over the ball and hold there, which we don’t usually do, and then we decided to pick through the middle which made us get numbers to the breakdown and that was the key in the end.
“We did that pretty well. I love coaching this mob. Only one try against us tonight, and that was off an intercept. The guts these guys show week after week is incredible.”
Fischer said the Brumbies had also shown enormous heart. They traveled to South Africa for the semifinal against the Bulls — winning 26-23 at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria in front of 50,000 Bulls fans — then returned to Canberra and to Hamilton, playing in front of 25,000 Chiefs supporters.
The Brumbies narrowly failed to become the first team in 18 Super Rugby finals to win the title outside their own country.
“We were exceptionally brave,” he said. “We just made a couple of poor decisions, a couple of panic moments in the second half. The Chiefs were strong and the crowd got behind them. But in terms of effort and intensity, I thought we turned up magnificently.”
Fischer said the Brumbies had carefully studied the Chiefs’ style of play and designed a game-plan to meet the challenge.
“They’ve been the best team in the tournament over the past two years, and I think there was always a good chance we were going to play them in the final,” he said. “We worked hard and we had the winning of the game.
“But credit to the Chiefs to take it away from us, though we made enough errors to be our own worst enemy. It’s enormously disappointing again. We came here to win, we thought we would win, but we lost to a very, very good Chiefs side.”