The Brumbies have reached the Super Rugby playoffs in each of the past four seasons, losing the final to the Chiefs in 2013, making the semis in 2014-15, and going down in the opening week of the 2016 post-season after topping the Australian Conference.
But the franchise faces its toughest test in many years in 2017, with a host of experienced stars departing the capital.
The Brubmies will be without top-liners David Pocock, Stephen Moore, Matt Toomua, Ita Vaea, Joe Tomane and Robbie Coleman, while Christian Lealiffano will still be sidelined by illness. Ruan Smith, Albert Anae, Michael Wells and Michael Dowsett have also left.
In a modest arrivals column, Saia and Anthony Fainga’a, Kyle Godwin, Chris Alcock, Nic Mayhew, Tom Banks and Lolo Fakaosilea join the cause in Canberra.
The team achieved a solid 10-5 win-loss ratio last season, but given they were in an underperforming Australian Conference, that record was effectively achieved in a false economy. The Brumbies started the season on fire – smashing eventual champs the Hurricanes 52-10 – but limped into the playoffs after copping hidings from all four of the other Kiwi sides.
Their exit courtesy of a 16-9 loss to the Highlanders in a home final was actually one of their grittier efforts of the season.
After treading water for the past few years, coach Stephen Larkham has his hands full safeguarding the Brumbies’ heavyweight status without a handful of their best players of the last decade.
BEST RECRUIT: After debuting for the Wallabies last year, former Force backline star Kyle Godwin shapes as a key figure for the Brumbies this year. The Zimbabwe-born playmaker is equally at home in the No.10 jumper or in the midfield, but his game could go to another level marshalling a Brumbies backline with more firepower than he was accustomed to in Perth.
PRESENTING THE BRUMBIES | Kyle Godwin
Born: Harare, Zimbabwe
Club: Uni-Norths pic.twitter.com/dvXuM8ZblO
— Brumbies (@BrumbiesRugby) January 16, 2017
STRENGTH: A sprinkling of world-class performers sprinkled throughout the team sheet, headlined by Scott Sio, Rory Arnold, Scott Fardy, Tevita Kuridrani and Henry Speight.
WEAKNESS: The Brumbies have lost their three most experienced leaders in Stephen Moore, David Pocock and Matt Toomua. Replacements Saia Fainga’a, Chris Alcock and Godwin are solid players in their own right, but it’s a significant step down in the hooker, openside flanker and flyhalf spots. Meanwhile, Christian Lealiifano’s ongoing battle with leukaemia leaves them another class stalwart short in a key position.
KEY MAN: With fellow loose forwards Pocock and Ita Vaea gone, Scott Fardy must step up in the leadership stakes like never before. The 32-year-old veteran of 39 Tests for the Wallabies is one of the best No.6s in the business on his day, but he needs to match his ability with consistency.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Late-bloomer Aidan Toua – who played just 10 games across four seasons with the Reds – made the most of his chance at the Brumbies last year, playing 16 Super Rugby games. The PNG-born flyer is a dazzling ball-runner from fullback and the 27-year-old will look to build on his breakout 2016 campaign.
YOUNG GUN: With the Brumbies’ backline depth significantly eroded, look for 20-year-old Jordan Jackson-Hope to feature regularly in this year’s Super Rugby assault. Jackson-Hope got a taste with the Brumbies last year before representing Australia at the Under-20s World Cup, and is exactly the type of player the team needs to move quickly through this transitional phase.
NEEDS TO IMPROVE: The Fainga’a brothers bring a stack of experience – at Super Rugby and Test level – to Canberra, but the fact they couldn’t get a regular start at the Reds is an indication of where they’re at these days. Hooker Saia and midfield back Anthony still have a lot to offer, but if the 30-year-old twins don’t perform they’ll be usurped by the Brumbies’ next generation.
Anthony Fainga’a is back in CBR with @BrumbiesRugby, looking to put his Japanese stint to good use in 2017.
— Brumbies (@BrumbiesRugby) February 15, 2017
THE COACH: Stephen Larkham lines up for his fourth season as Brumbies head coach, and while tallies of 10 wins in 2014, nine wins in 2015 and 10 wins in 2016 may look decent on paper, he may be feeling the heat after the team’s failure to improve and a quarter-final exit last season.
THE DRAW: The Brumbies begin their campaign with a tough assignment against the Crusaders in Christchurch this Saturday, before hosting the Sharks in Round 2. They have a crucial three-week overseas trip where they face the Lions, Kings and Jaguares away, while in the two remaining rounds after the Test break they play the Reds and Chiefs away.
POSSIBLE 2017 LINEUP:
1 Scott Sio
2 Saia Fainga’a
3 Ben Alexander
4 Rory Arnold
5 Sam Carter
6 Scott Fardy
7 Chris Alcock
8 Jarrad Butler
9 Tomas Cubelli
10 Kyle Godwin
11 Henry Speight
12 Anthony Fa’ainga
13 Tevita Kuridrani
14 James Dargaville
15 Aidan Toua
Reserves: Allan Alaalatoa, Nic Mayhew, Josh Mann-Rea, Blake Enever, Jordan Smiler, Dewet Roos, Jordan Jackson-Hope, Nigel Ah Wong.