Highlanders 26
Brumbies 20

The joke was on the Brumbies as the Highlanders won their Super 15 rugby match 26-20 at Invercargill tonight.

The April Fool's Day smiles were worn by the Highlanders who registered their fourth win in six outings to maintain a surprisingly strong start of the season.

They did it the hard way, with captain Jamie Macintosh using his vaunted strength to barrel over the tryline from close range with five minutes remaining on the clock to establish an ultimately decisive 26-15 break.

The Brumbies did hit back with a third try of their own to replacement halfback Patrick Phibbs but the Highlanders held on, thanks do a gritty nature and old fashioned determination.

A potential turning point came in the 68th minute when Australian referee Stuart Dickinson reduced the Highlanders to 14 men for 10 minutes when he lost patience with the persistent offending of the home side.

He reached for the yellow card for the umpteenth infringement at the breakdown, this one committed by replacement first five-eighth Tony Brown after Dickinson had issued earlier warnings.

Down 10-21 at the time, the Brumbies took immediately advantage of their numerical superiority as fluid ball movement enabled centre Andrew Smith to stroll over ion the face of a defence lacking numbers.

Crucially, first-five Matt Giteau's conversion attempt hooked wide to the right, one of four goalkicking misses from the Australian international which was significant in such a closely fought affair.

Earlier, a frenetic first half ended with the Highlanders ahead 15-7 despite being caned at the breakdown by the Brumbies as well as Dickinson.

Their advantage on the scoreboard came on the back of two tries in two minutes, both to workaholic hooker Jason Rutledge.

His first came in the 16th minute when he scooped up a clever left-footed crossfield kick by halfback Jimmy Cowan after a probing run from wing Kade Poki, and the Southland rake was in again shortly after when he crossed the line thanks to smart support play when strapping fullback Ben Smith stepped inside Giteau on the Brumbies 22.

Up 15-0 the Highlanders briefly threatened to run away with it but the Brumbies continued to dominate at scrum time and at the breakdown, the latter area where they held sway by 52-25 at halftime.

The Australians had their reward, too, when Giteau slipped between props Jamie Mackintosh and Chris King to score in the 32nd minute, in the process leaving himself with the conversion from a handy angle.

The Highlanders were forced to make a significant change just minutes into the second half when a groin injury forced first five-eighth Colin Slade from the field.

The new franchise signing had impressed in his first outing since overcoming a broken jaw in a pre-season match, linking well with Cowan and easing into his work in an encouraging performance until struck down by injury.

There was better news from All Blacks lock Tom Donnelly, another on the comeback trail from injury.

In his first start this season, Donnelly worked hard and kept his nose to the grindstone for 60 minutes before coach Jamie Joseph sought the fresh legs of Josh Bekhuis.

HIGHLANDERS 26 (Jason Rutledge 2, Jamie Mackintosh tries Colin Slade con Tony Brown 2, Slade pens) bt BRUMBIES 20 (Matt Giteau, Patrick Phibbs, Andrew Smith tries Giteau con pen) at Rugby Park Stadium. Referee: Stuart Dickinson.

- NZPA