The Highlanders booked their place in the Super Rugby semi-finals after they held out the Brumbies to prevail 15-9 in Canberra on Friday.
It wasn’t pretty in inclement weather and they had to soak up a great deal of pressure in their 22 in the closing stages, but the champions managed to get the job done to keep their title defence alive for another week, at least.
Only two tries were scored and they both went the way of the New Zealanders, with Waisake Naholo and Liam Squire crossing. Lima Sopoaga kicked five points and Christian Leali’ifano slotted three penalties for the Brumbies.
This is the Highlanders’ first win in Canberra since 2006 as they now wait to see who their next opponent will be from Saturday’s fixtures.
Weather conditions did not help the contest as a spectacle and with plenty of empty seats at the ground, those who did brave the wind and rain were given free ponchos and pies for their trouble. However the first-half was limited in terms of entertainment with errors aplenty.
Despite the wind being in their face, the Highlanders started the brighter and were 3-0 ahead when three penalties eventually saw them shoot for goal. Sopoaga made no mistake as referee Angus Gardner took a mental note of how keen the Brumbies were to slow down the ball.
The official would have also noticed the dominance of the Brumbies scrum early on and that led to Highlanders tighthead prop Josh Hohneck being penalised and Leali’ifano doing the rest off the tee. 3-3 seemed a fair reflection of a contest that was set to go down to the wire.
Leali’ifano pushed his team 3-6 in front on 18 minutes after a great line was run by centre Tevita Kuridrani, which resulted in an offside.
No further scores came in the next 20 minutes but the trends continued in Canberra, with the Brumbies’ scrum having its say as it got them out of jail on their own five-metre line on 34 minutes, after the Highlanders had enjoyed ample field position with their slick game-plan.
That style paid off too when Naholo crossed wide on the right after patient play led to the ball going out to Shane Christie, who found his wing for the finish. With Sopoaga’s kick flying over the uprights, it was 10-6 at the break with Matt Toomua being sin-binned for offside.
The Brumbies had a chance to cut the gap down to a point two minutes after half-time when Christie was offside, but Leali’ifano hit the post from in front. He was not alone in being off-target though as Sopoaga also missed five minutes later before Toomua came back on.
With the game still finely poised, Highlanders replacement prop Siosiua Halanukonuka handed the Brumbies three points as he came offside. But then it was the turn of Sopoaga to hit the post from an easy angle, with that attempt coming after Scott Fardy was caught offside.
Then came a crucial moment in the game closing in on the hour mark as an intercept from Sopoaga led to centre Matt Faddes racing to within ten metres of the home team’s line. The ball was recycled and this time it was number eight Squire who crossed on the right for 15-9.
The Brumbies couldn’t complain they didn’t have opportunities to respond though and with an attacking line-out just five metres from the line coming soon after, the Highlanders pounced in the air to stop the dangerous driving maul from forming. It was not the first time too.
It was then all hands to the pump for the Highlanders as following Brumbies replacement wing Lausii Taliauli going agonisingly close to sliding over the whitewash, the hosts launched a series of scrum attacks five metres out.
But the champion Highlanders held on, somehow, with their spirited defence reminding their Super Rugby rivals why they won in 2015. If they can keep up this kind of form in more favourable weather, they could go back-to-back.
Pen: Leali’ifano 3
Yellow card: Toomua (offside – 37 min)
Tries: Naholo, Squire
Brumbies: 15 Aidan Toua, 14 Nigel Ah Wong, 13 Tevita Kuridrani, 12 Matt Toomua, 11 Robbie Coleman, 10 Christian Lealiifano (cc), 9 Tomás Cubelli, 8 Jarrad Butler, 7 David Pocock, 6 Scott Fardy, 5 Sam Carter, 4 Blake Enever, 3 Ruan Smith, 2 Stephen Moore (cc), 1 Scott Sio
Replacements: 16 Josh Mann-Rea, 17 Allan Alaalatoa, 18 Leslie Leulua’iali’i-Makin, 19 Tom Staniforth, 20 Michael Wells, 21 Joe Powell, 22 Andrew Smith, 23 Lausii Taliauli
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith (cc), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Matt Faddes, 12 Malakai Fekitoa, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Liam Squire, 7 Shane Christie (cc), 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Luke Whitelock, 4 Tom Franklin, 3 Josh Hohneck, 2 Ash Dixon, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown
Replacements: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Aki Seiuli, 18 Siosiua Halanukonuka, 19 Mark Reddish, 20 Dan Pryor, 21 Te Aihe Toma, 22 Fletcher Smith, 23 Rob Thompson
Referee: Angus Gardner
Assistant Referees: Ben O’Keeffe, Nic Berry
TMO: George Ayoub