The Brumbies maintained the pressure on the Reds in the Australian Vodacom Super Rugby conference battle with an impressive 30-19 win over the Highlanders at the Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin on Friday.
The Brumbies were never headed in the match and although they gave away a lot of penalties in the first half that enabled the hosts to stay in touch through the boot of flyhalf Hayden Parker, they never looked like losing against a team that still plays like it has forgotten how to win. If that is the case it’s hardly surprising, as this was the Highlanders' seventh consecutive defeat as their late summer of discontent starts to extend into an autumn of discontent.
The Highlanders looked to have improved aspects of their loose-forward play for parts of the match, but they still make too many defensive errors and they had trouble contending with the Brumbies’ kicking game. Although Jesse Mogg did not have a stand-out game, the return of the regular fullback did appear to put a missing jigsaw piece back in place and make the Brumbies look more complete than they have in a while.
Certainly this was a different Brumbies team to the one that struggled and was possibly fortunate to escape with a draw against the Southern Kings last week. They started the same by taking an early lead, but this time they maintained their intensity throughout the game to win with something to spare.
Henry Speight was the first try scorer for the Brumbies not long after the start of the match, an advantage in numbers moving to the right giving him the modicum of space he needed to mount a threat. An impressive hand-off from the big winger opened a pathway on the inside and Ma’a Nonu was unable to stop Speight’s momentum as he powered in.
Christian Lealiifano, playing inside centre again after wearing the No 10 the previous week, was on target with the conversion and then soon after that a penalty to make it 10-0 after seven minutes. Thereafter the Brumbies’ discipline started to let them down as the Highlanders started to come back into the match, with Parker having cut the deficit to just one point by the 22nd minute.
That was the last time though that the Highlanders were really close, with the Brumbies then capitalising on their possession and territorial dominance by putting daylight back on the scoreline when flanker George Smith powered over with a weaving run that came off a driving maul near the Highlanders’ line. The try capped a brilliant allround performance from the veteran Wallaby, whose presence in the battle for the loose ball has more than made up for the loss to injury of David Pocock.
The Highlanders were unlucky to be denied a try that Hosea Gear would have done well to score as he swiveled through a couple of defenders before reaching out to dot down while on his back. The pink people struggled to make up their minds if there was enough downward pressure, and you can hardly blame them as it didn’t look like it at normal speed, but the slow motion replay suggested the Kiwis might have been unfortunate to have the call go against them.
They did add another Parker penalty on the stroke of halftime to bring it back to a five point game (17-12) at the break, but two Brumbies penalty, one kicked by Nic White and the other by Lealiifano, took the score to 23-12 by the 49th minute before a strong tackle saw the Highlanders lose possession and the other Brumbies wing, Joe Tomane, pick the ball up and run 40 metres to score.
That was really game set and match and although Aaron Smith, who was impressive for the Highlanders when he came on, did score the only try of the match for the hosts with five minutes to go, it was of the consolation variety only. So the Brumbies power on while the Highlanders must be wishing the season was already over as they get to experience the nightmare that the Blues lived through last year.
For Ma’a Nonu, who played for the Auckland franchise last season, the Super Rugby experience is very different from what he gets to experience as an All Black. He moved from what was considered a losing culture at the Hurricanes to a losing culture at the Blues, and now there’s a losing culture at his new franchise too.
Highlanders – Try: Aaron Smith. Conversion: Hayden Parker. Penalties: Parker (4).
Brumbies– Tries: Henry Speight, George Smith, Joseph Tomane. Conversions: Christian Lealiifano (3). Penalty: Nic White, Lealiifano.