The Highlanders held on for a hard-fought 15-9 win over the Brumbies in Friday's Super Rugby quarter-final in Canberra. CRAIG LEWIS reports.
In the end, this result went the way most would have expected, but the Highlanders were far from convincing in a clash where their discipline and execution let them down.
A dramatic finish to the match saw the Brumbies camp in the Highlanders' 22 for virtually the entire final 10 minutes, during which time a potentially match-winning try was ruled out by the TMO. But the Brumbies' impotent attack ultimately failed to break down the visitors’ outstanding defence.
In the end, the Landers managed to score two tries to none, and held on to a lead throughout the second half as they got the job done in difficult wet weather conditions that played a considerable part in seeing the game degenerate into trench warfare.
The Brumbies were let down by a malfunctioning lineout, while they simply offered no threat on attack, with the Highlanders enjoying the better of territory and possession throughout the match, and very rarely did their tryline come under threat until the final 10 minutes.
With rainy and windy conditions in Canberra, the scene was always set for a closely contested affair, but it must be said that errors and ill-discipline from both sides certainly didn’t contribute much quality to an unappealing opening half.
Just three points separated the sides heading into the latter stages of the first stanza, with Christian Leali'ifano slotting two penalties to the one from opposite number Lima Sopoaga.
However, the Highlanders struck a telling blow just before the break when Waisake Naholo was put away to score in the corner after an extended period of pressure, while, to make matters worse for the hosts, Matt Toomua was shown a yellow card after repeated team infringements.
It handed the Highlanders the ascendancy heading into half-time, but the visitors would have been frustrated by a first-half performance that saw them concede eight penalties – three of them at scrum time – and commit seven handling errors.
Yet while the Brumbies managed to gain the upper hand at scrum time, they lost three lineouts, which often gifted possession back to the Highlanders.
As it was, the Highlanders enjoyed 68% of possession and 78% of territory in the first half, but the fact they enjoyed just a four-point lead at the break proved to be an indication of just how their execution with ball in hand was uncharacteristically off-colour.
The Landers would have also been frustrated by their inability to score any points while playing with a one-man advantage, with Leali'ifano and Sopoaga both missing penalty kicks early in the second half before the return of Toomua.
Leali'ifano did manage to cut the deficit back to a solitary point when he slotted a 52nd-minute penalty, while Sopoaga missed another relatively simple shot at goal soon after as the Highlanders were left to hang on to a tenuous 10-9 lead.
An error-strewn encounter was crying out for some excitement, and it arrived just before the hour mark when Sopoaga snapped up an intercept on the halfway line, and sent Matt Fades charging away. The ball was recycled and Liam Squire ultimately went over to score a simple try that stretched the lead to six points.
In another decisive moment soon after, the Brumbies turned down a shot at goal in order to set up an attacking lineout in the red zone, but their malfunctioning lineout once again proved problematic as the Highlanders stole the ball and exited their 22.
From there the Highlanders would have just wanted to close out the game, but the Brumbies turned to their scrum in a late onslaught that saw replacement Lausii Taliauli squirm over the tryline in the 74th minute, but the TMO was unable to see a clear and obvious grounding.
Three scrum resets followed, but the Brumbies were unable to use this platform to create a successful opportunity to snatch what would have been an undeserved victory.
Brumbies – Penalties: Christian Leali'ifano (3).
Highlanders – Tries: Waisake Naholo, Liam Squire. Conversion: Lima Sopoaga. Penalty: Sopoaga.
Brumbies – 15 Aidan Toua, 14 Nigel Ah Wong, 13 Tevita Kuridrani, 12 Matt Toomua, 11 Robbie Coleman, 10 Christian Leali'ifano (c), 9 Tomás Cubelli, 8 Jarrad Butler, 7 David Pocock, 6 Scott Fardy, 5 Sam Carter, 4 Blake Enever, 3 Ruan Smith, 2 Stephen Moore (c) 1 Scott Sio.
Subs : 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 (c), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Matt Faddes, 12 Malakai Fekitoa, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Liam Squire, 7 Shane Christie (c), 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Luke Whitelock, 4 Tom Franklin, 3 Josh Hohneck, 2 Ash Dixon, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown.
Subs: 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.
Photo: Brendon Thorne/Getty Images