Lima Sopoaga scored 18 points as the Highlanders overcame the Brumbies 23-10 in Invercargill. CRAIG LEWIS reports.
The Highlanders came into Saturday's clash having lost seven of their last eight matches against the Brumbies, including the last three, while the reigning champs had also suffered the agony of losing their last two games by a single point.
In that context, it was a crucial result for a Highlanders side that has found itself precariously placed in the New Zealand conference. The win was also based around their outstanding defence, which saw them make 160 tackles compared to the Brumbies’ 37, while missing just 10 compared to 12 from the visitors, as illustrated by SARugbymag.co.za’s Opta-powered stats.
The Brumbies completely dominated proceedings in the opening quarter, but despite enjoying some 80% of possession, they failed to convert opportunities into points. Even when Highlanders wing Jack Wilson was sent to the sin bin in the 14th minute for a high tackle, the Brumbies battled to make their one-man advantage count.
In the end, they had to settle for a solitary penalty to flyhalf Christian Leali'ifano, with the Brumbies particularly left to lament three penalties conceded on their lineout throw as lock Sam Carter was repeatedly pinged for obstruction.
Despite being on the back foot for much of the opening period, the Highlanders finally created an opportunity in the Brumbies’ 22 as half-time loomed. The hosts duly made the most of it as Aaron Smith produced a beautiful pass to put Sopoaga away for a timely try.
With rain falling steadily from the outset in Invercargill, handling was understandably a problem for both sides, but it would have been the Highlanders that headed into the change rooms knowing that they were rather fortunate to enjoy a 7-3 lead.
That advantage was extended soon after the restart as Malakai Fekitoa broke a tackle and sent a well-timed pass to Ben Smith, who cantered over to score and suddenly open up a handy buffer.
In the context of the difficult conditions, it was important for the Brumbies to hit right back if they hoped to stay in the contest, and they did just that as Josh Mann-Rea went over from the back of a lineout drive.
Sopoaga edged the Kiwi side into a seven-point lead with a 57th-minute penalty, though, and then a key moment in the clash came just after the hour mark as the Brumbies spent five minutes camped in Highlanders territory, but again failed to convert pressure into points.
Instead, Sopoaga slotted two more penalties to push his side into a 13-point lead with just over five minutes left to play, and from there the Highlanders easily held on for an important victory.
Highlanders – Tries: Lima Sopoaga, Ben Smith. Conversions: Sopoaga (2). Penalties: Sopoaga (3).
Brumbies – Try: Josh Mann-Rea. Conversion: Christian Leali'ifano. Penalty: Leali'ifano.
Highlanders – 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Jack Wilson, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Rob Thompson, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Liam Squire, 7 Shane Christie (c), 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Alex Ainley, 3 Josh Hohneck, 2 Ash Dixon, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown.
Subs: 16 Greg Pleasants-Tate, 17 Craig Millar, 18 Siosiua Halanukonuka, 19 Joe Wheeler, 20 Dan Pryor, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Hayden Parker, 23 Matt Faddes.
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 Tom Staniforth, 3 Ruan Smith, 2 Josh Mann-Rea, 1 Allan Alaalatoa.
Subs: 16 Robbie Abel, 17 Scott Sio, 18 Leslie Leulua’iali’i-Makin, 19 Rory Arnold, 20 Blake Enever, 21 Jordan Smiler, 22 Joe Powell, 23 James Dargaville.
Photo: Dianne Manson/Getty Images