Super Rugby AU final: Noah Lolesio shakes up Wallabies playmaker puzzle

The inaugural Super Rugby AU season came to an end on Saturday night when the Brumbies defeated the Reds 28-23 to claim their first trophy since 2004.

In front of a COVID-safe 6,000 fans in Canberra, the Brumbies led from start to finish but never completely controlled the match despite the Reds' errors and poor discipline; a late botched lineout the story of the Queenslanders' night as they fell five points short of victory.

Read on as we review some of the weekend's big talking points and the entire Super Rugby AU season itself.

LOLESIO SHAKES UP WALLABIES NO. 10 DEBATE

Brumbies coach Dan McKellar stunned Australian rugby last week when he released his teamsheet for the final. After more than two months on the sidelines with injury, McKellar rushed Noah Lolesio straight back into the No. 10 jersey for the biggest game of his young career.

It could have been too much for some 20-year-olds, but Lolesio just set about delivering a man-of-the-match performance.

The Auckland-born playmaker looked at home right from the outset in Canberra, controlling the match behind a dominant Brumbies forward pack while also reminding us he has the attacking skills to create opportunities for those around, and also break the line himself.

Lolesio finished the match with a try assist, nine runs for 35 metres with four beaten defenders, while running up 13 of the Brumbies' 28 points with two penalties, two conversions and a drop goal.

And it was that second-half drop goal which showed he might just be ready to make the step up to Test rugby, potentially even as early as the back-to-back Bledisloe Cup games in New Zealand. Knowing the Brumbies had a penalty advantage, Lolesio simply steadied himself and knocked over a simple three points.

When he might have been deemed short of a gallop when the Wallabies squad was named last week, Saturday night's performance has surely thrust Lolesio right back into selection discussions alongside Matt To'omua and James O'Connor, the latter of whom was unable to get anything going against the Brumbies on Saturday night.

O'Connor and To'omua are clearly the easier option as a 10-12 combination given their experience at Test level, but Lolesio could have done little more on Saturday night to propel himself back into the discussion.

"I think so," McKellar replied when asked him his young No. 10 was ready for Bledisloe Cup rugby.

"If you surround him with experience, a good forward pack, which they'll have (in) the Wallabies, a good scrum, lineout, maul and he can play, if you get on the front-foot he's very dangerous.

"He's certainly good enough."

The other player who will have done his chances no harm of a maiden Wallabies cap was Irae Simone. The former Waratahs centre was included in Rennie's 44-man squad last week, and turned in another accomplished all-round display on Saturday night.

It might be a stretch to throw both Lolesio and Simone into a starting Wallabies XV from the Bledisloe opener, but there is every chance they will combine at some stage through the busy Rugby Championship.

And both men loom as hugely important players the further we go into the Rennie Wallabies era.

REDS WILL LAMENT SET-PIECE, DISCIPLINE, BUT TEAM IS TRENDING UPWARDS

Having started Super Rugby with a 2-4 record, the Reds were looking at another year without finals football and potentially the end of Brad Thorn's stint as head coach.

But there was just enough in what would turn out to be their final game of that season, a 47-17 victory over the Bulls, to suggest that if they got the chance to play again in 2020 then brighter days lay on the horizon.

And so it turned out to be as they continued to trend upwards, before falling one game short of a first title since 2011.

The review of Saturday night's game will hold few surprises for Thorn and the rest of his Reds coaching staff, as the Queenslanders' lineout descended into a shambles in Canberra and poor discipline meant they were chasing the match from the opening quarter.

Tackling players in the air; high and lifting tackles and inaccuracy at the breakdown earned the ire of referee Angus Gardner early on and allowed the Brumbies to escape their own end with little difficulty.

It wasn't until Jordan Petaia produced a bit of magic, again injuring himself in the process, that the Reds got themselves into Saturday night's decider.

The way they were able to hang in the contest, even while Filipo Daugunu was in the sin-bin, was admirable, but a final lost lineout inside the Brumbies' 22 was reflective of the inaccuracy that had thwarted the Reds for virtually the entire game on Saturday night.

But it's clear that Thorn has this team on the right track and that he probably now deserves the opportunity to see where he can take them.

In Taniela Tupou, Lukhan Salakai-Loto, the entire back-row, Tate McDermott, James O'Connor, Petaia and now Jock Campbell, Thorn has the spine of a team that will be very tough to beat in whatever competition they are part of next year.

ANOTHER YEAR OF SUPER RUGBY AU WON'T HURT AUSTRALIA

It's time for Rugby Australia to admit there will be no trans-Tasman competition, at least in 2021, and set course for another season of Super Rugby AU.

After a slow first few rounds, the intensity, physicality and skill level of Super Rugby AU clearly lifted, giving way to a number of excellent contests with extended sequences of entertaining rugby.

The competition also gave the nation's promising group of young players the chance to develop without the narrative of a lack of success against Kiwi teams, even though the Brumbies and Rebels had each tasted victory in New Zealand earlier this year.

And it also allowed for some healing in the wider Australian rugby community with the reintroduction of the Western Force. The fact that they were far from disgraced, save for one heavy loss to the Reds, also means the competition's integrity wasn't in question and that with a couple of smart playing additions and a full preseason, the Force will be sterner prospect come 2021.

As for the trial law variations, certainly the goal-line dropout, instead of a scrum when a player was held-up over the line or from a ball grounded behind the defensive tryline, saved time and therefore looks to be worth persisting with. The jury is out on the 50/22 kick, however.

Over to you, World Rugby.

All in all, Rugby Australia should be happy with Super Rugby AU. Those involved with its hasty creation deserve credit, so too the playing group who agreed to pay cuts, as it ensured rugby supporters had something to watch at friendly timeslots for 12 straight weeks.

RA should be buoyed by the much-improved 89,000-strong television audience for the final, too.

Running the competition in its entirety again next year, perhaps with a post-season crossover with Super Rugby Aotearoa, looks to be the answer amid the ongoing uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic.

The key for chief executive Rob Clarke and chairman Hamish McLennan is to settle on that plan once and for all, so interested broadcasters are left with no confusion as to what they're effectively bidding on.