A last-minute penalty from fullback Ben Blair gave the Highlanders a 28-26 victory over the Brumbies at Canberra Stadium on Saturday. The Sharks and Bulls can now still finish fourth on the log.
If the Sharks take five points from their match against the Stormers this afternoon they will move to within four of the Brumbies, with a match against the Force to come. The Brumbies play the Crusaders in Christchurch in their final fixture.
The Bulls can also still get through to the semis. If the Brumbies lose to the Crusaders by eight points (without getting a bonus point), and the Bulls smash the Stormers by more than 55 points, the Pretoria side will finish fourth on points difference (presuming the Sharks slip up). Of course, if the Crusaders thrash the Brumbies (and reduce the Brumbies points difference) then the Bulls’ job will be that much easier.
The Brumbies will rue not finishing the job against a Highlanders side that had nothing to lose.
Brumbies flyhalf Gene Fairbanks opened the scoring when he cut back inside and evaded the tackle of Highlanders centre Neil Brew. Stirling Mortlock slotted the conversion to make it 7-0 after 13 minutes.
The Highlanders hit back at the end of the first quarter when prop Carl Hayman picked up the ball from the base of the ruck and barged his way over the Brumbies tryline, with Blair adding the extras.
The visitors then took a 12-7 lead when No 8 Craig Newby ran down the left-hand touchline, found captain Anton Oliver on his outside, before reclaiming possession to score in the corner.
Matt Giteau may have pledged his future to the Western Force, but he continues to give his all for the Brumbies. It was the centre who grabbed his side’s second try when he was driven over the Highlanders tryline, with the help of forwards Daniel Heenan and Alistair Campbell.
A penalty from Blair made it 15-14 to the New Zealanders, before the Brumbies launched one final attack as the half-time hooter sounded. The ball went wide from a scrum and found winger Mark Gerrard, who shook off Blair’s tackle to score in the corner. However, TV replays showed he had lost control when trying to ground the ball with one hand, and the try was disallowed.
Gregan kicked his fourth drop goal of his Super Rugby career to put the Brumbies back in front soon after the break, only to be yellow-carded for a dangerous spear tackle. Blair kicked the penalty to restore the Highlanders one-point lead.
With Giteau at scrumhalf, the Brumbies continued to apply the pressure. Fairbanks came close to scoring in the right-hand corner, before Mortlock nailed a long range penalty to make it 20-18.
Gregan had only just returned from the sin bin, when Highlanders scrumhalf Jimmy Cowen was given his marching orders for repeated infringements at the breakdown. Mortlock kicked the penalty from right in front to extend his side’s lead to five.
A second try from Hayman then saw the Highlanders edge in front, before Mortlock kicked a penalty with 10 minutes to go to make it 26-25.
But when the Brumbies were penalised with full-time approaching, Blair stepped up and cooly added the three points to consign the Australians to their first home defeat of the season and give South African rugby fans something to celebrate.
Brumbies – Tries: Gene Fairbanks, Matt Giteau. Conversions: Stirling Mortlock (2). Penalty: Mortlock. Drop goal: George Gregan.
Highlanders – - Tries: Carl Hayman (2), Craig Newby. Conversion: Ben Blair. Penalties: Blair (3).
By Simon Borchardt