A refreshed Highlanders outfit held off the Brumbies to prevail 26-20 in a thrilling Super Rugby match in Invercargill on Friday.
A refreshed Highlanders outfit held off the Brumbies to prevail 26-20 in a thrilling Super Rugby match at Rugby Park in Invercargill on Friday.
There's still no light at the end of the tunnel for the Brumbies, who have now lost five games on the trot – all but writing off their semi-final chances this year.
It was an improved performance from the visitors, but two tries in two minutes from Highlanders hooker Jason Rutledge in the first half meant the Brumbies were always going to play catch-up rugby.
A fired up Highlanders side – fresh from a bye – were worthy winners at their southern outpost as they ended a two-game losing streak in the competition.
The difference between the two sides at full-time was only six points, but Brumbies skipper Matt Giteau will be kicking himself after missing his first two shots at goal in the match.
Instead it was the Highlanders who got themselves on the scoreboard first – and in fine fashion too – after a scintillating burst by Kade Poki got his team inside Brumbies territory. Poki's pass went loose, but Jimmy Cowan picked up before putting in a cross-field kick for Rutledge to gather and score.
Colin Slade's first kick at goal since returning from injury was wide, but the Highlanders' pivot was spot on with his second attempt from wide out after Rutledge was celebrating a second try in as many minutes.
Poki was involved again, after the wing combined with full-back Ben Smith and prop Chris King to put Rutledge over in the corner that gave the home side a 12-0 lead after 20 minutes.
Slade added three more points with a straigh-forward penalty, before Giteau partially atoned for his early wayward kicks by stepping through three players to score a 32nd minute try, which he also converted.
Brumbies inside centre Christian Lealiifano missed a long distance penalty attempt just before the break which left the score reading 15-7 at half-time
The Highlanders were then hit with an injury blow to Slade, but replacement fly-half Tony Brown swelled his team-mates advantage to 18-7 with a simple penalty.
A close-range three-pointer to Giteau again reduced the deficit to eight.
Brown added a 66th minute penalty to restore his team's 11-point lead, but he was sin-binned for a breakdown infringement in the 68th minute.
Centre Andrew Smith gave the Brumbies a glimmer of hope as he squeezed his way past several defenders in the 69th minute, to set up a nail-biting finish to the match with only six points the difference (21-15).
But five-pointer to captain and prop Jamie Mackintosh five minutes from full-time, gave the home team a decisive 26-15 lead.
Replacement scrum-half Patrick Phibbs earned a bonus point for the Brumbies with a late try, but it was scant reward for the visitors who ultimately fell short yet again.
Tries: Rutledge 2, Mackintosh
Pens: Slade, Brown 2
Tries: Giteau, Smith, Phibbs
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith, 14 Kade Poki, 13 Kendrick Lynn, 12 Shaun Treeby, 11 Siale Piutau, 10 Colin Slade, 9 Jimmy Cowan, 8 Nasi Manu, 7 Alando Soakai, 6 Adam Thomson, 5 Tom Donnelly, 4 Jarrad Hoeata, 3 Chris King, 2 Jason Rutledge, 1 Jamie Mackintosh (capt).
Replacements: 16 Mo Schwalger, 17 Halani Aulika, 18 Josh Bekhuis, 19 Nick Crosswell, 20 Aaron Smith, 21 Tony Brown, 22 James Paterson.
Brumbies: 15 Matt Toomua, 14 Henry Speight, 13 Andrew Smith, 12 Christian Lealiifano, 11 Adam Ashley-Cooper, 10 Matt Giteau, 9 Josh Valentine, 8 Ita Vaea, 7 Julian Salvi, 6 Peter Kimlin, 5 Mark Chisholm, 4 Ben Hand, 3 Salesi Maafu, 2 Huia Edmonds, 1 Ben Alexander.
Replacements: 16 Anthony Hegarty, 17 Dan Palmer, 18 Colby Faingaa, 19 Michael Hooper, 20 Patrick Phibbs, 21 Tyrone Smith, 22 Franky Fainifo.
Referee: Stuart Dickinson (Australia)