Cape Town - Stephen Larkham was visibly uncomfortable following his side’s 31-11 loss to the Stormers at Newlands on Saturday night, clearing his throat and sipping on his bottle of water throughout the 8-minute long post-match press conference.
“I don’t know what’s going on,” Larkham offered when the man to his left, flyhalf Christian Lealiifano, asked his coach if he was alright.
Losing is clearly not something that sits well with the former Wallabies flyhalf, but perhaps even more significant on Saturday was that his tournament favourites had not only lost, but been tactically schooled by the Stormers and Robbie Fleck.
Fleck and the Stormers have been talking at length about their desire to play a running brand of rugby with a “fearless” approach, and in the build-up to this match more of the same was expected.
Stormers loose forward Nizaam Carr even explained, in some detail, during the week that the plan was to run at David Pocock – using Juan de Jongh to nullify the threat of the Wallabies flanker.
The stage was set for the Stormers to have a full go, but instead what followed was a tactical master class from Fleck.
The Stormers kicked … a lot.
And in doing so they ensured that they maintained the territorial advantage throughout the match, while the Brumbies could not exert the prowess at the breakdown because there simply weren’t as many breakdowns as they would have liked.
Larkham confessed afterwards that he had been caught a little off-guard by the Stormers kicking game.
“Yeah … I think the first couple of rounds they probably ran more than they have,” he said when asked if he was surprised by the Stormers approach.
“We were ready for a running game … they probably showed glimpses of that throughout the night but their kicking game was good tonight.
“We’d spoken about it … we had a plan, particularly as a backline to be ready for the kicks and I thought we handled it quite well.”
Larkham gave credit to the Stormers, but he did feel that it could have been a different result had the Brumbies not lost Josh Mann-Rea to a red card with about 15 minutes left in the clash.
“They were just too good … I thought it was one of those games where I thought it was pretty tight,” said Larkham.
“Both teams were sort of sticking in there and it got away from us I think … the red card really hurt us in terms of our set piece and having one less number around the pack to defend with.
“Up until that point it was anyone’s game.”
Larkham said it was difficult to talk specifically about how the Stormers kicking had impacted on Pocock's influence.
“We’ll certainly give credit to the Stormers for their kicking game and their tactics … if that’s sort of what you’re asking for,” said Larkham.
“I think it was good … they kicked quite well. They probably didn’t execute some of the kicks as well as they would have liked but it worked for them tonight.
“But, like I said, I thought the balance was in the game right up until the red card.”
And, then, one final go from the Brumbies boss.
“We’ll be disappointed with some of the decisions out the back of the scrums … we had clearly dominant scrums a couple of times there.”
Fleck, meanwhile, was a picture of composure.
“We had to play smarter rugby than what we did last week. The Brumbies are a quality outfit … a number of Wallabies in that side and if you think that you can just build phases against them and get results it wouldn’t work,” he said.
“We had to be smart about the way we played and certainly the kicking game played an important role.
“But I thought defensively our breakdown was excellent … we put them under pressure there and when we did keep ball in hand we actually handled their defensive breakdown.
“It wasn’t pretty all the time and there were some soft moments but it is a really important win for us moving forward.”
The result sees the Brumbies lose for the first time this season, meaning that the Sharks are now the only undefeated side left in Super Rugby.