Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Highlanders battle past Brumbies

Highlanders 15 Brumbies 9
Waisake Naholo of the Highlanders celebrates victory following the Super Rugby Quarterfinal match between the Brumbies and the Highlanders. Photo / Getty Images.
Waisake Naholo of the Highlanders celebrates victory following the Super Rugby Quarterfinal match between the Brumbies and the Highlanders. Photo / Getty Images.

There's a reason the Highlanders are the defending champions and they showed it in Canberra.

They have giant hearts and incredible resilience. They had to cling on to win. Really hang on tight when the Brumbies had them in all sorts of trouble at scrum time and looked they couldn't fail to score.

The Brumbies were playing for the penalty try and when that wouldn't come, they bashed away through the forwards for what felt like an eternity.

The tension was incredible. The Brumbies needed not only the try but the conversion, too, and they could smell blood.

But the Highlanders didn't break. They nearly did. They creaked and moaned but they held form to take their place in the semifinal.

It was no less than they deserved on a horrible night. About the worst the Australian capital could muster. The rain was the biggest problem, almost impossible to read.

With the weather conspiring the way it did, free-flowing, pass and catch rugby was never going to be easy to execute. Generating pace and width was going to be as risky as it was difficult and the Brumbies simply don't bother with it at all.

They fell immediately into a mindset of securing possession, grinding a bit through the forwards and then hoofing it. In their defence, it's how they have played all year but they had a look of a team that didn't have the remotest intention of even thinking about trying anything else.

Typically such wild conditions can be a great leveller as there is, usually, ample reward for doing nothing more than hoisting the ball high up the middle of the field. But the Brumbies over did it - certainly in the first half - and they just didn't do it well.

Their kicking game lacked thought and accuracy - it was more hit and hope. They also seemed to be oblivious to the fact that Ben Smith was in his element. Everything the Brumbies put his way, he caught and dealt with.

Their malfunctioning lineout didn't help them either. Even throwing exclusively as they did to the front, Elliot Dixon owned them. He pinched five in a row in the first half and that left the Brumbies with no way of building momentum. He also pulled off a near miracle steal on his own line with the Highlanders leading 15-9. It was a big moment from a player who had a big night to suggest, again, that he's a player that relishes the big occasion.

All the Brumbies really had, then, was a dominant scrum and a will to defend and from early in the piece, it felt like it was going to be a game where the Highlanders would play all the rugby, apply all the pressure and have to hope they could be clinical enough to score the points their efforts deserved.

They were alive to the twin threat of David Pocock and Scott Fardy all night. Aaron Smith refused to hit willing forward ball carriers until they had safety in numbers.

It meant they lost the chance to play at the speed they wanted but the gain was that they were able to recycle and diffuse the threat of two of the best ball poachers in the world game.

They had to be patient to get their rewards as a result and it took 30 minutes of graft and grind to score their first try and force a yellow card to be shown to the Brumbies in the process.

Highlanders 15 (W. Naholo, L. Squire tries; L. Sopoaga con, pens)
Brumbies 9 (C. Leal'ifano 3 pens)

- NZ Herald

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