Brumbies-Waratahs clash at last adds spice to improving Super Rugby AU

At last there is a bit of spice in Super Rugby AU.

It is not before time either with Rugby Australia's broadcast package hitting mailboxes earlier this week, the governing body issuing a slate of options interested parties are able to pick and choose from, including the much-debated State of the Union [NSW vs. QLD] concept.

It was somewhat ironic then that Super Rugby AU's first real bit of niggle came ahead of the Brumbies-Waratahs clash in Canberra, a match the hosts have long described as "Tah week".

The Brumbies have been fortunate, too, that this is in fact their second "Tah week" of 2020, after they had hosted the Waratahs in the final match of Super Rugby before it was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

But the atmosphere around this contest is different.

Firstly, the Waratahs were easybeats back in Super Rugby; they had won just one game before they lobbed in Canberra in Round 7 and were promptly thrashed 47-14. The Brumbies, on the other hand, were riding high near the top of the Super Rugby ladder, their young fly-half Noah Lolesio pulling the strings superbly and seemingly on his way to a Wallabies jersey.

But fast forward five months and things are vastly different.

Firstly, there is no Lolesio, the 20-year-old playmaker still sidelined by a hamstring injury suffered against NSW in Sydney in Round 3 of Super Rugby AU, a match the Brumbies scraped through at the death with a try from replacement scrum-half Isaac Fines.

And while they followed up that narrow defeat with a lacklustre effort against the Rebels, the Waratahs have since found some form with back-to-back victories over the Reds and Force.

Cue the sarcasm from Brumbies coach Dan McKellar.

"They've won two games in a row so they're world-beaters again, they're full of confidence according to most," McKellar said of the Waratahs Thursday. "They'll play side-to-side rugby and we'll certainly be looking to put them under pressure."

Shots fired? Not quite, particularly when McKellar admitted the Waratahs had in fact started to produce some quality rugby over the past fortnight.

"A good young side, I think Rob's done a good job there. It's a new coach, a new coaching team, it's taken some time to implement his way of playing, but you can see that the work they have done, they're getting some confidence off the back of that and especially in the last two weeks."

The Waratahs, across the 25-year history of Super Rugby, have probably believed their own hype at times, too.

But that is not the case this season under new coach Rob Penney, who inherited a young group at the start of the year and found the early going in Super Rugby to be incredibly tough.

"Did he say that did he? Talkin' us up. Do you think he's trying to deflect," Penney replied when asked about McKellar's world-beaters comment.

"We certainly wouldn't be viewing ourselves as world-beaters after a couple of wins; we're pretty grounded. They're very hot favourites at their home ground, obviously, and [given] what they've done in the last few years that would be an appropriate status for them."

When the two sides met at ANZ Stadium in Round 3, a match played in front of one of the ground's lowest ever crowds due to coronavirus restrictions, it barely rated a mention.

But a few weeks on, with Super Rugby AU suddenly up for the grabs, Rugby Australia will hope that this game might garner a few more eyeballs than it did last month.

There is also no Super Rugby Aotearoa to contend with, the competition concluding in unfortunate circumstances as the Crusaders-Blues finale was canceled because of a resurgence in COVID-19 cases in New Zealand, giving the Australian competition clean air and an opportunity to not be so closely compared with the game across the ditch.

And while it may not a classic case of sledging, McKellar's world beaters comment has at least added a degree of feeling to a match that is perhaps missing a genuine agitator like Justin Harrison or Tom Carter, a player who doesn't mind winding up the opposition or pushing a head into the turf behind the referee's back.

Rugby may have been slow to get the message as a whole, but from the slate of content pitched by RA it is clear that the governing body are certainly aware it is now in the entertainment business, that Australian rugby must drive narratives as much as it does attractive on-field action.

The play itself has been improving week on week in Super Rugby AU, and while the Waratahs may not see themselves as world-beaters, McKellar's comments are a throwback to the years when this rivalry was one of Australia's best.

With a broadcast package out to tender, Rugby Australia needs its flagship rivalries stirring the blood once more.

Thankfully, "Tah week" again has a little spice.