Highlanders enhance Transtasman final hopes
The Highlanders have put the pressure on their rivals in the race to make the inaugural Super Rugby Transtasman final, beating the Brumbies 33-12 in Canberra last night.
Heading into the final round, they were one of several teams in contention to host the final. They did their job, earning a bonus point and improving their points differential, and will now wait, with the Blues and Crusaders playing today.
The only way the Highlanders can miss out on the final is if the Blues beat the Force at Eden Park and the Crusaders earn a bonus point while beating the Rebels by at least 33 points at Leichhardt Oval.
Despite the fact the Highlanders and Brumbies wore white shirts and dark shorts in one of the worst kit clashes you will see in professional sport, they avoided any equally embarrassing moments that might have come from such a colour clash.
The Highlanders started strongly, with plenty of early territory to attack from. However, the Brumbies opened the scoring 15 minutes into the match. After seeing off several attacks from the Highlanders, the hosts made the most of getting the ball in their own hands.
On the back of a strong carry from blindside Rob Valentini which got the Brumbies inside the Highlanders’ 22, the hosts moved it on quickly.
Eventually, they broke through the visitors’ line, with centre Len Ikitau ploughing through from close range.
Their lead was short-lived, however. While the Highlanders couldn’t make the most of their opportunities in the opening 15 minutes, they didn’t make any such mistakes the next time they had a chance to strike.
It was a reliable tactic that got the Highlanders their first points of the night. After being awarded a penalty for Brumbies players being in front of their kicker, the visitors kicked to the corner and Ash Dixon rumbled over from the back of the lineout drive.
The Highlanders hit the lead moments later after some slick playmaking from first five-eighth Mitch Hunt. Having time with the ball in his hands, Hunt summed up his options and sold a couple of dummy passes which broke the defensive line, before sending Jona Nareki through a gap. Nareki was brought down just short of the line but found Aaron Smith in support for the try.
But as the Highlanders hit back when the Brumbies scored first, the roles reversed. Again, it was a lineout drive that featured, seeing Brumbies hooker Lachlan Lonergan dot down from the back of it to close the gap to two points at the break.
The second half was a similar story. The Highlanders had the better of possession and territory but the Brumbies’ defence held strong and stifled the Highlanders’ attack for the most part.
However, conceding tries to Smith and openside flanker Billy Harmon midway through the period saw the Brumbies start to lose touch with the visitors inside the final 20 minutes — while the vital bonus point was within reach for the visitors.
That came just five minutes after Harmon crashed over, when winger Sio Tomkinson ran a forwards’ line one off the ruck to shoot through a small gap and over the line for what were the final points of the game.
The Highlanders can earn hosting rights if the Crusaders fail to overtake them in the standings, and if the Blues are upset by the Rebels. If the Blues win by any margin, they will move ahead of the Highlanders again. Brumbies 12 (Len Ikitau, Lachlan Lonergan tries; Bayley Kuenzle con) Highlanders 33 (Aaron Smith 2, Ash Dixon, Billy Harmon, Sio Tomkinson tries; Mitch Hunt 4 cons)