The second of scrumhalf Aaron Smith’s two tries sparked a second-half surge as the Highlanders secured a bonus-point win against the Brumbies in Canberra on Friday.
The Highlanders put the Brumbies to the sword 33-12 in freezing Canberra, banking maximum points to go top of the table on 23 points, two clear of the Hurricanes.
Whether they make the final next weekend depends on what happens when the Blues face the Western Force and Canterbury Crusaders take on the Melbourne Rebels on Saturday. Both New Zealand sides are unbeaten and their opponents have yet to win.
‘I’m over the moon, it’s unbelievable. We’ve given ourselves our best shot to make the final,’ said Smith, the Highlanders co-captain after the five tries to two win.
‘Six weeks ago we committed to wanting to try and make the final, have back-to-back wins, improve the team and build some consistency so I’m absolutely pumped.’
The Brumbies started well with outside centre Len Ikitau diving over in the corner on 15 minutes. But the lead didn’t last after Allan Alaalatoa gave away a penalty and Ash Dixon flopped over from a rolling maul off the ensuing line-out.
The Highlanders struck again after an injection of pace from Jona Nareki who offloaded to Smith for the score.
The Brumbies closed the gap to 14-12 at half-time when hooker Lachlan Lonergan dotted down from a lineout set-piece. But Smith bagged his second six minutes after the restart and Billy Harmon added a fourth try.
Patelesio Tomkinson then grabbed what could have been a crucial fifth for the bonus point as the Highlanders desperately hung on at the end.