Super Rugby AU R9: Matt To'omua shows class as Wallabies competition hots up

The inaugural Super Rugby AU final will be played in Canberra after the Brumbies wrapped up top spot and a week's break with a 31-14 win over the Force on Friday night.

The final spot in the playoffs will be decided in this weekend's closing round after the Rebels pinched a late bonus-point in their loss to the Waratahs, who in turn fell two tries short of an attacking bonus point themselves.

Read on as we bring you some of the talking points from the weekend.

TO'OMUA PUTS HIS BODY ON THE LINE, AND STAYS CALM WITH THE BOOT

Last week it was revealed that Michael Hooper will spend the first half of next year enjoying a sabbatical with Japanese club Toyota Verblitz. After virtually a decade's loyal service, and significant financial conciliations earlier this year, it is nothing short of what the incumbent Wallabies skipper deserves.

It was also confirmed that Rebels duo Dane Haylett-Petty and Matt To'omua were the only other two players to be granted a sabbatical option as part of the pay negotiations that helped save the game, but that the two Rebels backs could not take their sabbaticals at the same time.

Haylett-Petty has been injured in recent weeks, with Reece Hodge deputising at fullback, but thankfully To'omua has been there to help pilot the Rebels to within striking distance of the franchise's first ever finals appearance.

He is providing the calm, experienced influence the Rebels need, just as he did off the bench in several games at the Rugby World Cup.

Down 14-3 approaching halftime on Saturday, the Rebels needed to land some sort of a blow on the Waratahs after the hosts had dominated much of the first stanza. And it was To'omua who came to the fore, the Rebels skipper hitting a daring line between two Waratahs defenders to touch down and ensure his side reduced the margin to just four points at the break.

While it never really looked like the Rebels would claim victory at Leichhardt Oval, it was imperative that they stayed within seven points of the Waratahs to snare a losing bonus point. In doing so, the Rebels would leave themselves needing a victory - by four points or more - to advance to a qualifying final with the Reds.

Trailing by nine points inside the final five minutes in Sydney, the Rebels were awarded a penalty out by the right touchline, 30 metres out from goal. Without any hesitation, To'omua quickly pointed to the posts and then calmly slotted the vital penalty that would make next Saturday's assignment in Newcastle just that little bit easier.

To'omua is contracted to the Rebels and Rugby Australia until the end of next year, suggesting a Japanese move similar to Hooper's could well be on the cards in the first part of next year.

And just like the Wallabies flanker, To'omua also has a huge role to play at the start of Dave Rennie's Wallabies rebuild.

RENNIE HAS GENUINE OPTIONS, BUT CERTAIN POSITIONS STILL A CONCERN

It's hardly surprising that some incumbent Wallabies, at least those who were part of Michael Cheika's World Cup squad, have lifted their game in recent weeks.

There are also those men who were unlucky not to tour Japan, some of whom started the Super Rugby season with a bang and have largely kept that form up through Super Rugby AU.

The end result is that Rennie and his fellow Wallabies assistants have genuine selection options across a number of positions, decisions that may come down to exactly what kind of rugby they want to play.

Isi Naisarani's two tries against the Waratahs on the weekend reflected his immense value as a ball-carrier, a player who can force his way over from close range and carry with authority through the middle of the paddock. Conversely, the likes of Jack Dempsey and Pete Samu play a little looser but have more footwork and speed at the line, perhaps giving way to a Wallabies game plan that explores the wider channels.

It is a similar situation at scrum-half.

Will Rennie look to utilise the running games of Tate McDermott or Jake Gordon, of look for a steadier hand from Nic White or Joe Powell?

White is a proven performer at Test level and could be set for a first start for the Brumbies since his return from Exeter this weekend against the Reds. Certainly the beautiful flat pass for Will Miller's try late against the Force is an example of the clutch plays that White can produce.

The same goes on the wing and at fullback, so too right across the front-row.

At lock, Rennie might not have the same level of performers, but there is still variety on offer. The Brumbies have unleashed a new generation of locks and brought back Cadeyrn Neville, while the Reds finally seemed to have settled Lukhan Salakaia-Loto in the second-row, pairing him with Angus Blyth.

Matt Philip and Trevor Hosea are surely also in the Wallabies reckoning at the Rebels.

Reds coach Brad Thorn hopefully may also look at a first start at outside centre this season for Jordan Petaia, after several strong showings on the wing. With Tevita Kuridrani demoted from the Brumbies side, the Wallabies are lacking genuine competition at outside centre.

It's clear that is Petaia's best position, as he showed in the World Cup quarterfinal with England, he just needs to start there for the Reds in the coming weeks.

WARATAHS HAVE SOMETHING TO BUILD ON

If Saturday night's six-point victory over the Rebels does turn out to be the Waratahs' last game of 2020, it will represent equal parts hope and frustration.

Certainly the frustration of not being able to secure a bonus point, and deny the Rebels one as well, will sting for a few days. But there should also be a bit of hope in the Force's ability to spring an upset, just as they went so close to doing in the corresponding game earlier in the year.

But where the Waratahs will retain genuine hope ahead of next season is the improvement in their game compared to where it was earlier this year. They are now a far more competent side that has a clear understanding of how they want to play the game, albeit with a playing group that still has some holes to fill.

Waratahs coach Rob Penney should be in the market for a couple of big ball-carrying forwards and he will also be losing a chunk of experience for next season with the departure of Rob Simmons and Hooper's sabbatical.

Penney does however have the nucleus of a promising young side and players like Will Harrison, James Ramm, Joey Walton and even Tepai Moeroa, who made his first start at the weekend, will be better for the steep learning curve they have endured in 2020.