As the Brumbies prepare for a date with Beauden Barrett’s Blues at Eden Park, Dan McKellar says his side has learn from its 2019 semi-final failure.
It was in 2019 when the Brumbies won in style in their quarter-final, smashing the Sharks from Durban in Canberra 38-13.
But rather than head across the ditch, they had a six-day turnaround, a marathon 12,000 kilometer trip to Argentina and were greeted by 40,000 hostile fans in Buenos Aires.
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The Brumbies showed up, but they were well off the pace and were beaten soundly 39-7.
Reflecting upon the heavy defeat, McKellar, who is in his final season with the Brumbies before joining the Wallabies as the national forwards coach under Dave Rennie, believes they were caught up on departing star Christian Lealiifano’s 150th Super Rugby match.
“It was Christian’s 150th and there was a lot of emotion around that,” McKellar told foxsports.com.au.
“We flew his brother over and did that and whilst it was really nice, it drained a bit of energy, emotional energy, I’m sure.
“The opposition were really good.
“We played in front of 40,000, it was crazy and we didn’t play well, so there’s certainly learnings out of that.
“It’s a different opposition, different travel, certainly a much easier travel trip.
“We’ll get over there on Wednesday and be good to go come Saturday.”
While the Brumbies don’t have to jump on multiple flights and travel across the world, heading across the ditch is no small task either.
The Brumbies have a reasonable record in recent years in New Zealand and come away with victories against the Chiefs this year and in 2020.
But taking on a red hot Blues side who have won 14 on the bounce and have a rock star backline including Barrett, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Rieko Ioane and Caleb Clark is a scary prospect.
“If he’s a nine out of 10 on Saturday we’re not winning,” McKellar said.
“He’s got to be very bland, very beige.”
The Brumbies returned to what wins big games of rugby on Saturday.
They returned to their rolling maul, dominated the scrum and were clinical at the lineout.
Doing the fundamentals well and getting an injection of energy and precision off the bench helped.
“It’s finals football,” McKellar said.
“You’re not going out there last night and playing a whole lot of razzle dazzle; it’s just not going to happen, the ball was like soap.
“But that didn’t take away from the contest. I’m sure to a neutral fan they would have enjoyed that contest and the resilience and the grit; it was a semi-final or final vibe.
“The reality is Saturday was going to be built around defense pressure, set-piece pressure and taking your opportunities when you were at the right end of the field, and we did that.”
So how do you go about ending the Blues’ winning run?
“I think the blueprint was there two weeks ago,” he said, having seen Barrett kick a field goal in stoppage time to secure a 21-19 win in Canberra.
The Brumbies hit the breakdown hard and largely successfully made life difficult for Barrett by shutting down his time and space.
While the Blues are once again rising from their great slumber over the past two decades, the Brumbies aren’t satisfied with being in the finals again.
“We’re happy, but we’re not satisfied,” McKellar said.
“We felt we should have beaten the Blues two weeks ago and we’re going over there to beat them.
“We’re not going over thinking this is lovely, we’ve made the semis.
“It doesn’t interest us to know we were the best performing Australian team, we want to be the best team in the comp.
“We’ve got a chance to show that over the next fortnight.”
Helping them will likely be the return of Rob Valetini.
The Wallabies backrower was his side’s best performer before missing the past month with injury.
His return would likely see a backrow reshuffle with Jahrome Brown, whose strengths are in defense and in tight, likely to be called upon by a return to the starting side, which could see Tom Hooper and Luke Reimer return to the bench.
And for McKellar, the next fortnight is about creating a legacy before continuing on his journey.
“We’ve been there before and we’ve consistently been one of the top teams for the last few teams, but if we want to leave a lasting legacy and come back here, and in 10 years time or 20 years time and enjoy reunions and have that bond and connection for life, then we’ve got to deliver and we have a chance to do that over the next two weeks.”