By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - The ACT Brumbies' pledge to add backfline flair to their traditional set-piece strength this season generated no small amount of scepticism from pundits who had written the team off as among the stodgiest in Super Rugby.
In their second outing of the campaign on Saturday, however, the twice champions torpedoed their reputation as one-dimensional bores with a stunning eight-try rout of Waikato Chiefs at Canberra Stadium.
The 54-17 demolition not only ignited their season after a deflating opening loss to the Melbourne Rebels, it gave Australian fans hope that another dreary season of kow-towing to New Zealand teams might not be a foregone conclusion.
The win was just the third time since 2004 -- the year of the Brumbies' second and last title -- that any Australian team had scored 50 points against New Zealand opposition and the first time since 2016, when the Canberra side smashed the Wellington Hurricanes in the opening round.
Coach Dan McKellar had good reason to feel smug after being forced to defend his tactics in the wake of the Rebels loss, a match in which all four of his team's tries came from the big men up front.
"I liked our balance in our game tonight," he told reporters.
"After one game, we copped a bit of flak about being a team that can only score tries off mauls and the difference tonight was we took our opportunities when we did go wide and (I'm)really pleased for some of the guys that got their first chance in a while."
With Wallabies poacher David Pocock out with concussion and both starting wingers, Toni Pulu and Henry Speight, also sidelined with injuries, the Brumbies looked set for a tough night against the Chiefs, playoffs fixtures since 2012.
But the back-up flyers were superb, with Chance Peni finishing off two superb tries and Andy Muirhead setting up another.
It helped that flyhalf-captain Christian Lealiifano played his best game since coming back from his leukaemia battle in 2017.
The 31-year-old punched holes in the Chiefs defence with bursts of speed and incisive passing to set up both Peni's tries and a third for jetheeled fullback Tom Banks.
Lealiifano played the last of his 19 tests in 2016 before he was struck down by illness and his brilliant display cannot have gone unnoticed by Michael Cheika as the Wallabies coach weighs up flyhalf options for this year's World Cup in Japan.
"He's strong, came back from Japan fit and sharp and his running game was outstanding tonight and that's always been his strength," said McKellar of his captain.
Beating a New Zealand side away will be the Brumbies' next task when they face the Hurricanes on Friday.
A victory in Palmerston North, however achieved, will be no bore for any Australian rugby fan.
(Reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing by Nick Mulvenney)