The Brumbies held firm for a 22-20 victory in a pulsating match against the Highlanders in Canberra.
With the Brumbies leading by two points in the final minute, Highlanders centre Niva Ta’auso made a 50m linebreak before being tackled on the 22m line. But replacement scrumhalf Toby Morland knocked on as he looked to clear the ruck quickly and the Brumbies breathed a deep sigh of relief.
This match was arguably the best spectacle of the tournament to date, with both sides determined to play an entertaining brand of rugby. They IRB will point to this match as an example of what the game should look if the ELVs are utilised correctly and the Canberra crowd no doubt went home satisfied.
The Brumbies were shell shocked by the pace and intensity with which the Highlanders started the game. They punched up through the phases, controlling possession beautifully and remaining composed in the face of spirited breakdown contesting by the likes of George Smith.
That patience paid dividends when winger Fetu’u Vainikolo profited from a slipped tackle on flyhalf Daniel Bowden, who broke the line and offloaded to Vainikolo to sprint in from 10m out.
Laurie Fisherâ€™s boys regrouped and hit back instantly through inside centre Anthony Faingaa, who came in on the inside switch off flyhalf Christian Lealiifano and powered his way over the tryline from close range.
The Brumbies controlled affairs from that point, standing firm in defence as the Highlanders sought to continue their phase based approach and capitalising when their opponents made errors. They dominated possession and territory, camping in the Highlanders 22m for extended periods.
The Brumbiesâ€˜ possess a host of game breakers in their backline and none had a greater impact than league convert Tyrone Smith (Georgeâ€™s brother) who made a 40m bust upfield, stepping and bouncing defenders with the ease of a seasoned union player. His run decimated the Highlanders defensive line, and when he was dragged down 7m short the ball went wide to Huia Edmonds who stuck his head down and aimed his body at the tryline. Highlanders lock Hayden Triggs, however, was adjudged to have hit him high in his attempt to prevent the score, earning a yellow card and conceding a penalty try.
But the Highlanders drew to within four points in the second half through two James Wilson penalties and looked the better side for the majority of the half, returning to the clinical build up play that rattled the hosts in the first half.
They squandered an opportunity to add a further three points when Steven Setephano decided to quick tap from 10m out, instead of kicking at posts. He isolated himself and had turned over possession.
Sensing that they needed to change tactics, the Brumbies reverted to a more conservative approach, setting up phase after phase through their big strike runners. The Highlanders had to crack and 16 phases into a move that started in their own 22m, No. 8 Stephen Hoiles carried three defenders over the tryline with him.
But the Highlanders refused to surrender and dragged themselves back into contention through a try from Chris King. Wilson added the extras and with 13 minutes left the Highlanders trailed by just two points (22-20).
Hoiles pulled off a try saving ankle tap on Vainikolo, but a penalty followed which Wilson hooked wide. The Brumbies controlled possession in the dying minutes but with time virtually up, Ta’auso surged upfield only to see his good work squandered with the knock on.
By Ryan Vrede
Brumbies – Try: Anthony Faingaa, Penalty try, Stephen Hoiles. Conversion: Julian Huxley (2). Penalty: Huxley.
Highlanders – Try: Fetu’u Vainikolo, Chris King. Conversion: James Wilson (2). Penalty: Wilson (2).