Highlanders tackle Brumbies into submission
MATCH REPORT: The Highlanders held on in the face of sustained second-half pressure to advance to the Super Rugby semifinals.
The defending champion Highlanders won 15-9 against a determined Brumbies team, which held the lead for most of the first half.
However, two tries - in the 36th and 57th minutes - swung the match the Highlanders way.
The Highlanders certainly did it the hard way, but it could all have been for nothing in a dramatic last five minutes - when a turnover in the Brumbies 22-metre area was moved down field by Argentine scrumhalf Tomas Cubelli.
The Brumbies set scrum after scrum in a bid to assert their dominance in the Highlanders 22-metre area to secure a last-minute win.
Try as they might, the Brumbies could not crack the Highlanders defence - despite laying siege to their line for almost the entire final 10 minutes.
It was the defence, so typical of the Highlanders all season, that won them the match.
There were some hair-raising moments, none more than when replacement wing Lausii Taliauli looked to have got over the line.
However, the TMO was unable to see if the ball had been grounded over the line, and it did appear that Taliauli had been grounded with the ball under his chest just short of the line.
In dreadful first half conditions the Highlanders, playing with the wind, managed to go to the break leading 10-6.
The Highlanders looked to set their attacking trend from the start of the game.
Employing a reverse move from a ruck, scrumhalf Aaron Smith went to the right, then threw back to Dixon on the openside and the Highlanders slipped straight onto attack, stretching the Brumbies early. While unable to score a try, they gained three quick penalties from the home side, opting for the penalty goal off the last in the fourth minute.
Brumbies flyhalf Christian Leali'ifano after missing his first penalty goal attempt levelled the scores three minutes later in the 10th minute. He added a second in the 17th.
The Highlanders spent much of the second quarter controlling ball, and looking to probe. They benefited from referee Andrew Gardiner warning the Brumbies they had conceded too many penalties in their own 22 metre area, while also helping themselves to four Brumbies line-outs - the last of which in the 36th minute resulted in several runs at the line.
Finally the ball was controlled well enough for wing Waisake Naholo to cross for the try, while also seeing Brumbies inside centre Matt Toomua sin-binned for being off-side in front of the posts in the movement which resulted in the try.
Hopes that they could strengthen their lead after the break seemed lost when flyhalf Lima Sopoaga missed with two penalty attempts at goal - hitting the posts.
However, But from the second when it seemed the Brumbies were likely to pressure the Highlanders' line with a lucky breakout, Sopoaga pulled off a superb intercept as the Brumbies ran the ball from a line-out.
He fed centre Matt Faddes and he raced towards the goalline. He was tackled from behind and while grounded just short the Highlanders support arrived and the ball was moved quickly for No.8 Liam Squire to score.
Soon after the Brumbies had a midfield penalty and kicked to the corner to attempt to launch a line-out drive. But an outstanding leap by Dixon denied yet another Brumbies line-out win and the Highlanders cleared.
It was a deserved win for the Highlanders and while not their most emphatic win it was enough to account for a Brumbies side that lacked attacking finesse and which was too often ill disciplined at vital stages of the game.
Their line-out woes were a big contributing factor in the Highlanders' success.
The Highlanders' win continued a dominant Super Rugby season for New Zealand teams over their Australian opposition, winning 22 of their 26 encounters.
"We dug in over the last 15 minutes and showed good character," Highlanders co-captain Shane Christie said.
"It was always going to be difficult coming over here but we're stoked and we're in the semi-finals now and we look forward to the week ahead."
It was a despondent Brumbies camp, bowing out of the play-off race and saying goodbye to three of their star Wallabies - skipper Stephen Moore, Matt Toomua and David Pocock, who will all be heading elsewhere next season.
"It's difficult not to comment on some of those refereeing decisions," Brumbies coach Stephen Larkham said.
"For mine Lausii scored a try near the end and we had a dominant scrum all night and the ball has come out sideways in the final minutes and I cannot see how there is no penalty for that.
"It's really devastating because it's tough conditions tonight and we were behind on the scoreboard but we found a way back into the game and we did everything right to win it."
Man of the match: It was clear the Highlanders were not getting as much quick ball as they normally do and it may have had a lot to do with David Pocock. Blake Enever produced a mountain of work on defence and Sam Carter carried strongly. Argentinean scrumhalf Thomas Cubelli was the rock and perfect link between forwards and backs, while he produce some of the most crucial; pays for the Brumbies - including a vital turnover. You can always bank on the Highlanders' Smiths, Aaron and Ben, to produce special efforts. Ash Dixon was a workhorse and Liam Squire also put in a mountain of work. Then there was Elliot Dixon, who apart from his general play, stole a couple of crucial line-outs. However, our award goes to Luke Whitelock - who showed that the decision to move him to lock was indeed a masterstroke. The Highlanders second row forward was great in the set pieces, solid on defence and great work ethic in general play.
Moment of the match: There were a couple of key moments. Firs was the simultaneous yellow card to Matt Toomua and the try scored by Waisake Naholo in the 38th minute - the try giving the Highlanders a lead they never conceded. Then there was the TMO call in the 75th minutes, when James Dargaville went over, but the TMO said he could not see a grounding - despite spending several minutes looking at several angles. It was a good call, but a vital moment that could have won it for the Brumbies.
Villain of the match: Nobody really. Physical game, brutal at times and a couple of sharp shoulders that went unpunished. But nothing obviously nasty.
For the Brumbies:
Pens: Lealiifano 3
For the Highlanders:
Tries: Naholo, Squire
Yellow card: Matt Toomua (Brumbies, 37 0 repeated infringements, killing the ball)
Brumbies: 15 Aidan Toua, 14 Nigel Ah Wong, 13 Tevita Kuridrani, 12 Matt Toomua, 11 Robbie Coleman, 10 Christian Lealiifano (co-captain), 9 Tomás Cubelli, 8 Jarrad Butler, 7 David Pocock, 6 Scott Fardy, 5 Sam Carter, 4 Blake Enever, 3 Ruan Smith, 2 Stephen Moore (co-captain), 1 Scott Sio.
Replacements: 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 (co-captain), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Matt Faddes, 12 Malakai Fekitoa, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Liam Squire, 7 Shane Christie (co-captain), 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Luke Whitelock, 4 Tom Franklin, 3 Josh Hohneck, 2 Ash Dixon, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown.
Replacement: 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.
Referee: Angus Gardner (Australia)
Assistant referees: Ben O´Keeffe (New Zealand), Nic Berry (Australia)
TMO: George Ayoub (Australia)
* Stats courtesy of SANZAAR & Opta Sport