The ACT Brumbies have cemented their place on top of the Aussie conference with a 23-6 win over the Waratahs in Canberra. The win was soured by a broken right ankle to flyhalf Christian Lealiifano that occurred after the final siren and dashed his Wallabies aspirations in 2012.
The Waratahs looked the more confident side in the opening exchanges and showed their hand early with their forwards laying the platform before attempting to go wide against the Brumbies. When the Brumbies got their first use of the ball it was kicked out on the full and it appeared it could be one of those nights for the hosts.
But as the game wore on the Brumbies seemed to settle more despite having the lesser of the possession. Lealiifano converted a penalty to open the scoring after an earlier miss by Nic White.
The Waratahs then responded with a penalty of their own through scrum half Brendan McKibbin after pressuring the Brumbies inside their own 22m area but it could have been more points if passes went to hand or better options taken in the attacking zone.
The visitors were then dealt a blow when their hooker Tatafu Polota-Nau went into a tackle like a missile on Brumbies centre Pat McCabe and was knocked out. His attempt to get back up brought back memories of Berrick Barnes stumbling around in last years fixture and things only got worse when in the same passage of play flanker Jono Jenkins clashed heads with Adam Ashley-Cooper and also found himself sprawled on the Canberra Stadium turf.
The Brumbies kicking out of hand wasn’t keeping the crowd of 19,122 excited but it almost paid off when wing Joe Tomane collected a high ball and came close to scoring the first try of the night but for a knock-on by Jesse Mogg.
Neither team could really get on top although the visitors looked the better side at times with numerous line breaks, particularly in the midfield area. In what was becoming a very physical battle, referee Chris Pollock was allowing both sides a real crack at the ball at the ruck despite what appeared to be some illegalities from both sides.
The next addition to the score came from the boot of Lealiifano with a penalty right in front after a passage that saw the Waratahs concede a free kick on their own scrum feed and then penalised from the resulting scrum.
The Waratahs defenders were doing their best as they repelled a Brumbies raid and managed a penalty of their own on their try line to relieve the pressure. At this point it was clear Polota-Nau would need to come off as he ended up on his back looking up at the sky.
With five minutes remaining in the first half the Waratahs put together a brilliant display of phase play that went through 14 phases and they should have come away with at least five points after a scrum right on the Brumbies tryline but instead settled for a three pointer to level at 6-6.
It looked like that would be the half time score, but a defensive mix up by Barnes, Ashley-Cooper and Betham right after the halftime siren saw Brumbies winger Henry Speight skip his way to the try line like sidestepping someone in a phone box and give his team the psychological edge heading into the sheds up 13-6.
The second half started with more grinding play until Brumbies scrum half Nic White launched a superb penalty kick well into the Waratahs 22m area that after a series of pick and drives from the home side forwards saw newly re-signed Brumbies centre Andrew Smith dive over after another poor individual defensive read from the Waratahs. Lealiifano’s conversion saw the score out to 20-6 and with the majority of the half remaining, the home side knew that they couldn’t shut up shop against a desperate Tahs side.
The Tahs scrambling defense was once again on show as they kept out the Brumbies and managed to turn over the ball with the Brumbies knocking on the try line.
NSW brought on some replacements to try and spark their side. Former Brumby Rocky Elsom was welcomed to the field in expected style and was ‘encouraged’ every time he touched the ball from then on. It could have been that Waratahs fans had made their way to Canberra for this exact occasion such was the noise.
Elsom tried his best to inspire his side and even went close on one occasion but couldn’t quite make the line. Things looked brighter for them when Brumbies captain Ben Mowen had to spend the rest of the match in the sin bin after not rolling away in the ruck but a poor lineout throw and poor handling struck again right on the Brumbies line and the Waratahs ended the game without being able to cross the chalk.
The victory by the Brumbies has added importance as they have the bye next week and have effectively opened up a two win gap to their nearest Aussie rivals. The Waratahs will need to regroup before taking on the Bulls in Sydney on Friday night. They can take some positives away as they looked the better of the two sides for the majority of the match but those concentration lapses cost them victory in this one.
Brumbies 23 – Speight, Smith tries; Lealiifano 2 cons, 3 pens def Waratahs 6 – McKibbin 2 pens