Brumbies better prepared for Chiefs this time
ACT Brumbies head coach Stephen Larkham says the team's heavy injury toll has had a silver lining - improving its depth and giving confidence of avoiding a repeat of last year's grand final fadeout against the Chiefs.
The Brumbies have used 36 players so far this season, meaning almost everyone on their squad - plus a couple that weren't - has played Super Rugby this season and knows their role if called upon for Saturday's qualifying final against the Chiefs at Canberra Stadium.
In last year's Super Rugby grand final, the Chiefs were able to run over the top of a tiring Brumbies outfit, with their bench playing a big role in the come-from-behind victory.
The Brumbies bench wasn't able to have the same impact, with most of their substitutions coming in the last 10 minutes of the game.
Larkham felt this season's horrific run with injuries had ensured the same thing wouldn't happen again.
Against the Western Force, they had Wallabies Pat McCabe, Joe Tomane and Fotu Auelua start on the pine.
"The beauty of that is that guys in a really good [injury] run wouldn't get the opportunity, particularly at Super Rugby level," he said.
"That's improved our depth going into this finals campaign compared to last year.
"The opportunities those guys have got certainly gives them confidence and the experience to allow us to have confidence when they come off the bench."
Larkham said the last 20 minutes of games were especially important in finals and felt that bench depth would stand them in good stead.
While the Brumbies have one of the worst point differentials for the last 20 minutes in Super Rugby, neither Larkham nor director of rugby Laurie Fisher believed running out games was a problem.
Fisher believed it wasn't so much the bench depth that was different, but the way it was utilised.
"That was something that came out of last year's game - perhaps we didn't use our bench as wisely as we could have," he said.
"We had more players we could have given more time to. I don't know if they had better players, they just used them better."
Larkham said Robbie Coleman (hip) would be pushing to return to the 23, with just five players unavailable to take on the Chiefs - Stephen Moore, David Pocock, Siliva Siliva, Conrad Hoffmann and J.P. Smith.
Smith's knee injury opens the way for a potential Super Rugby debut for Australia under-20 prop Allan Alaalatoa. The team will be finalised after tomorrow's training sessions.
The Brumbies have already beaten the Chiefs once this year - 41-23 at home on Anzac Day - which gave Larkham confidence they could repeat the favour.
He said it came at an important time in their season, at the start of a tough five-game stretch including three top-six sides.
"Knowing that we've beaten them this year and beaten them at home, I think the guys can take a fair bit of confidence from that," Larkham said.
"Also we played some really good football [against the Western Force] ... and I think we'll reflect on the game that we played in round 11 and look at those opportunities and tie the two games together a bit."
One man missing from the Chiefs was No.10 Aaron Cruden.
Fisher said he made a huge difference to a side that also included All Blacks Liam Messam and Brodie Retallick.
"That's obviously a great boost for them, he's a wonderful general and tremendously skilful player," Fisher said.
"He adds a totally different dimension to the game.
"Cruden's a massive threat in his reading of the game. He's got the capacity to step and go and he's got the offload game as well."