The Brumbies increased the pressure on the Bulls and Sharks when they beat the Hurricanes 21-16 in their Vodacom Super 14 match at Canberra Stadium, after leading 15-6 at half-time.
The Hurricanes looked set to snatch an undeserved victory when they charged down a clearance kick from Mark Gerrard and were awarded a 5m scrum, as the full-time siren sounded.
The scrum then collapsed three times to add to the drama, before No 8 Rodney Soâ€™oialo bashed it up. The ‘Canes finally sent the ball wide, but lost possession in midfield and watched helplessly as the Brumbies kicked for touch.
The Australians now move up to 32 points on the log, nine head of the two South African franchises, who have a game in hand.
The vanquished Hurricanes should still reach the semi-finals, but they’d be closer to 10th position on the log had they lost to the Stormers, Bulls and Sharks earlier in the competition. The Kiwis got out of jail in all three of those matches against SA opposition – with TV referee Linston Manuels playing a crucial role at Loftus – but there was no lucky escape this time around.
Stirling Mortlock was once again the hero for the Brumbies. The outside centre is still struggling with a shoulder and hamstring injury, but was forced to play when Stephen Larkham and Matt Giteau were ruled out, leaving the Brumbies short of experience in the backs. In fact the Canberra side has won just 37% of their matches when Larkham hasn’t worn the No 10 jersey, which makes Saturday’s victory even more impressive.
Mortlock claimed he was at 70% fitness, but showed no signs of injury when he offloaded to midfield partner Joel Wilson and then took the inside pass to score under the posts. He added the extras and then extended the home side’s advantage with a penalty.
Larkham’s absence was especially evident during the first quarter. Neither flyhalf Gene Fairbanks or Wilson are natural kickers, which meant the ball had to go wide to the big boots of Mortlock or Mark Gerrard. On one occasion a wild Wilson pass put the home side under pressure inside their 22, but the loose ball was picked up and kicked into safety.
Holwell finally put the Hurricanes on the scoreboard with a penalty 10 minutes before the break, but the Brumbies struck back amost immediately when their forwards drove over from a line-out. The ball went loose from the hands of Jeremy Paul, but bounced backwards for George Gregan. The TV referee awarded the try, after studying several inconclusive replays, to make it 15-3.
As expected, there was a fierce contest at the breakdown between two quality loose trios, and the last movement of the half saw George Smit penalised on the ground. Holwell add the three points to reduce the gap to nine.
The Hurricanes created some momentum early in the second half and spent a full five minutes bashing away at the Brumbies tryline with their forwards. Eventually they went wide, only to concede the turnover. Mortlock’s shoulder had collided with a Hurricanes’ head earlier in the move and the skipper received a few minutes of medical attention before getting back to his feet.
Tamati Ellison then came into the Hurricanes midfield with Ma’a Nonu shifting to the wing, before Holwell slotted his third successive penalty to make it 15-9.
Having spent 70% of the match in their own half, the Brumbies worked their way back into opposition territory from the kick off. The Hurricanes were fortunate not to have Nonu sent to the sin bin, after he tried to break up a scuffle with Mortlock and Tom Eaton with a reckless shoulder charge.
Mortlock slotted his second penalty to restore the nine-point lead, with Ellison returning from the blood bin to replace Hurricanes captain Tana Umaga.
It was Ellison who created the Hurricanes only five-pointer when he shook off the tackle of Wilson and gave Lome Faâ€™atau the try-scoring pass. Replacement flyhalf Jimmy Gopperth nailed the conversion to make it a two-point ball game with 10 minutes to go.
But the Brumbies surged back into the Hurricanes half and came away with another three points from Mortlock’s boot, which in the end proved to be just enough.
Brumbies – Tries: Stirling Mortlock, George Gregan. Conversion: Mortlock. Penalties: Mortlock (3).
Hurricanes – Try: Lome Faâ€™atau. Conversion: Jimmy Goperth. Penalties: David Holwell (3).
By Simon Borchardt