A last-gasp Highlanders try has inflicted a heartbreaking 23-22 loss on the Brumbies in Canberra.
In a marathon effort that took the match well past the 80-minute mark, the Highlanders had three consecutive penalties that gave them the chance to steal the win.
A Folau Fainga’a hat-trick looked to have sealed the game for the Brumbies, who held a six-point lead in the final 13 minutes,but they were taught a lesson in game management in the final 10.
Attempting to keep the ball in hand and run down the clock rather than look to clear, the Brumbies turned the ball over and a Highlanders penalty opened the door for the win.
A breakdown penalty with 13 seconds to go gave the Kiwis a sniff and they immediately went for the corner.
Though they couldn’t reap the rewards from the first attempt, they were given a second chance from another penalty in the 82nd minute.
It looked as though the game was over after an off-target kick in attack but the Highlanders were playing advantage and instead, Murray Douglas was yellow-carded and the Kiwis had another chance to snatch it.
It was third time lucky for the Kiwis with Teariki Ben-Nicholas crashing over in the 84th minute and Josh Ioane coolly slotting the conversion.
The loss is the Brumbies’ first of 2020 and their first loss in Canberra in 10 matches.
Though rain that had plagued Canberra for much of Saturday had initially cleared ahead of Saturday night’s clash, the Highlanders showed the hosts how to deal with a heavy track for much of the night.
The Highlanders were happy to let the Brumbies make mistakes for them to pounce on and that they did.
A try off a charged down Noah Lolesio kick was the most obvious of these but the Kiwis were able to simply hold onto the ball more than the hosts
The Brumbies relied heavily on their faithful set piece, winning 16 of 16 lineouts, and Fainga’a’s finishing gave them pay for their faith.
Rookie flyhalf Lolesio had the toughest game of his fledgling Super Rugby career against a polished halves combination of Aaron Smith and Mitch Hunt.
Lolesio was in unfamiliar territory after the late withdrawal of centre Irae Simone (illness) and youngster Len Ikitau wasn’t able to replicate Simone’s strong form against a bruising HIghlanders side.
Highlanders back Josh Ioane had the first opportunity for points with a penalty in the fourth minute.
The Kiwis tried pressure on at set piece ime but it was through their set piece that Folau Fainga’a had the first score of the game off their faithful rolling maul.
Fainga’a made it a double just before the half hour mark, again through a rolling maul ans the Brumbies began to flex their muscle.
Lolesio had a moment to forget when Highlanders winger Jona Nareki charged down his clearing kick and fell over the line to narrow the gap.
The Kiwis had no hesitation in taking a shot at the posts just before half-time with superboot Josh Ioane putting them in front just shy of the break.
It was the Highlanders who got on the board first in the second half, with Ioane booting another penalty.
A high tackle from Highlanders winger Sio Tomkinson on Brumbies fullbackTom Banks gave the hosts a one-man advantage midway through the second half but sparked some controversy in the public sphere.
Tomkinson collected Banks high, appearing to make contact with his shoulder to the head but the TMO deemed there was no clear evidence of contact to Banks’ head.
On-field referee Nic Berry said he felt the contact was “shoulder to shoulder” and just a yellow card offence.
The Brumbies couldn’t yield any points from their 10-minute advantage and Ioane’s second-half penalty remained the main difference between the sides as the half ticked down.
Scores looked increasingly difficult to come by as the rain began to fall but Fainga’a managed to nab his third in the 67th minute to steal back the lead.
A Ryan Lonergan penalty stretched the lead to six points and put the pressure all on the Highlanders in the final minutes.
Highly-lauded Queensland prospect Reesjan Pasitoa played the final eight minutes for the Brumbies, replacing Ikitau at inside centre.
Halfback Ryan Lonergan impressed coming on for Joe Powell and showed composure with the boot, slotting two-from-two in pelting rain.
With 90 seconds to go, the Brumbies simply needed to hold possession to seal the win but ill-discipline unwound them.
The Brumbies head to New Zealand to face the undefeated Chiefs next weekend while the Highlanders play the Crusaders.
Final Score Brumbies 22(12) Highlanders 23(13)
Tries – F.Fainga’a 3
Pen – R.Lonergan
Con -N.Lolesio, R.Lonergan
Cards – M.Douglas (yellow 82nd min)
Tries – J.Nareki, T. Ben-Nicholas
Pen -J.Ioane 3
Con – J.Ioane 2
Cards – S.Tomkinson (Yellow 44th minute)
Brumbies: 15 Tom Banks, 14 Solomone Kata, 13 Tevita Kuridrani, 12 Irae Simone, 11 Tom Wright, 10 Noah Lolesio, 9 Joe Powell, 8 Pete Samu, 7 Will Miller, 6 Rob Valetini, 5 Murray Douglas, 4 Darcy Swain, 3 Allan Alaalatoa (c), 2 Folau Fainga’a, 1 James Slipper
Replacements: 16 Connal McInerney, 17 Scott Sio, 18 Tom Ross, 19 Cadeyrn Neville, 20 Lachlan McCaffrey, 21 Ryan Lonergan, 22 Len Ikitau, 23 Andy Muirhead
Highlanders: 15: Josh McKay 14: Sio Tomkinson 13: Rob Thompson 12: Josh Ioane 11: Jona Narkei 10: Mitch Hunt 9: Aaron Smith 8: Marino Mikaele-Tu’u 7: James Lentjes (C) 6: Shannon Frizzell 5: Josh Dickson 4: Jesse Parete 3: Siate Tokolahi 2: Liam Coltman 1: Ayden Johnstone
Replacements: Ash Dixon, Daniel Lienert-Brown, Conan O’Donnell, Jack Whetton, Dillion Hunt, Kayne Hammington, Michael Collins, Teariki Ben-Nicholas
Date: Saturday, February 15
Venue: GIO Stadium, Canberra
Kick-off: 19:15 (08:15 GMT)
Referee: Nic Berry (Australia)
Assistant referees: AJ Jacobs (South Africa), Damon Murphy (Australia)
TMO: Ian Smith (Australia)