Last-gasp Brumbies seal stunning win
February 13, 2009
Christian Lealiifano slots the winning drop-goal at Carisbrook
© Getty Images
Twenty minutes of brilliance subsided into a hugely frustrating opening night for the Highlanders, who crashed to a 31-33 loss to the Brumbies in Dunedin in the opening game of the new Super 14 season.
The 2009 competition kicked off with fast-moving, dramatic encounter marked by a collapse from the hosts, who raced to a 19-0 lead inside 19 minutes, and a late winning dropped goal from visiting first fly-half Christian Lealiifano.
Following the Highlanders early lead the Brumbies surged ahead with 30 unanswered points but Highlanders' replacement front-rowers Chris King and Jason Rutledge barged over for late tries to give the Highlanders the lead at 31-30. Lealiifano then had the final say in a roller-coast clash, coolly landing a 30m drop-goal with a minute on the clock.
First half injury exits for two of their three All Blacks - scrum-half Jimmy Cowan and his replacement as captain Jamie Mackintosh - sucked the life out of the Highlanders, who spent much of the night defending against vastly more experienced opponents.
Weight of possession told as the Brumbies secured a bonus point when fullback Mark Gerrard crossed with 25 minutes remaining. Veteran centre Stirling Mortlock bagged a double and Gerrard scored 15 points to silence a small crowd at Carisbrook who had begun the evening in good voice.
Cowan departed in the 16th minute with an elbow injury and prop Mackintosh followed 15 minutes later with a knee complaint. It is not clear how long the two key Southlanders may be out of contention, with centre Jason Shoemark forced to become the third captain of the night.
Shoemark could do little as his pack lost a number of lineouts, forcing the Highlanders to spend long periods in their territory. With the home side fielding five newcomers to Super 14 rugby they fought back splendidly from 19-30 down and prop King and hooker Rutledge looked like they had secured a remarkable home win.
The Highlanders burst from the blocks in the sixth minute with a classy try to centre Jason Shoemark, set up by a break from midfield partner Johnny Leota. It was 12-0 when a quick tap by Cowan set up an overlap for winger Fetu'u Vainikolo after neat link play from fullback Israel Dagg.
The try of the match rounded out a breathless opening quarter from the hosts. Fly-half Daniel Bowden received the ball 75m out, chipped the defensive line, re-gathered and stepped fullback Mark Gerrard before outpacing the cover defence for a glorious individual try.
The Brumbies kept their composure, responding through a charging Mortlock off a neat attacking scrum move. Gerrard converted and landed a penalty as the visitors gathered momentum at 19-10 which carried into the second half.
Mortlock spun, then carried three defenders over for his second try immediately after the break and a Gerrard penalty reduced the margin to one point. They were in front when centre Adam Ashley-Cooper galloped over after a neat break from Lealiifano and Mortlock turned provider when a cut-out pass sent Gerrard under the crossbar.
Brumbies coach Andy Friend's decision to pair Mortlock and Ashley-Cooper proved to be a wise one, but the Brumbies were not home and dry despite a 30-19 lead after 50 minutes. Rutledge and King popped up late on before Vainikolo silenced the home crowd, leaving the Highlanders with two bonus points and thought of what could have been.
Lealiifano was pleased with his effort, and praised commitment to practicing drop-goals during training for his composed strike at the death.
"It was something we always practice at training and it's paid off," he told Radio Sport. "I tried not to think to much, once you do that, it doesn't go well for you... I thought I could have hit it a bit better."
Highlanders' centre Shoemark lamented the loss of Cowan and Mackintosh before criticising his side's open defence.
"Obviously it was a huge blow and losing leadership like that doesn't help," Shoemark said. "In the second half we went to sleep but the boys fought back brilliantly at the end there. We've got heaps of attacking ability, we scored plenty of tries in the pre-season. It's just our defence, we can't let teams like the Brumbies back in. We had them on the ropes."
Highlanders: Israel Dagg, Ben Smith, Jason Shoemark, Johnny Leota/Jayden Hayward, Fetu'u Vainikolo, Daniel Bowden Jimmy Cowan (captain), Steven Setephano, Alando Soakai, Adam Thomson, Hayden Triggs, Josh Bekhuis, Clint Newland, David Hall, Jamie Mackintosh.
Replacments: Jason Rutledge, Chris King, George Naoupu, Tim Boys, Sean Romans, Jayden Hayward/Brett Mather, Kenny Lynn
Brumbies: Nic Henderson, Stephen Moore, Guy Shepherson, Ben Hand, Mark Chisholm, Julian Salvi, George Smith, Stephen Hoiles (capt), Patrick Phibbs, Christian Lealiifano, Francis Fainifo, Stirling Mortlock, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Clyde Rathbone, Mark Gerrard
Replacements: John Ulugia, Ben Alexander, Sitaleki Timani, Peter Kimlin, Joshua Holmes, Tyrone Smith, Matt Toomua