The Brumbies’ 2011 season is over in terms of finals hopes, after they went down to the Highlanders 26-20 in Invercargill on Friday evening.
Once again it was a case of missed opportunities and missed kicks at goal for the Brumbies, as they stumbled to their fifth loss in a row. In must be alarming for the Brumbies coaching staff that their players dominated most areas of the stats, but not where it mattered most — the scoreboard.
The Brumbies went into the game with three playmakers — Giteau, Lealiifano and Toomua — to try giving the backline some spark. This worked at times throughout the match, and the backs started to get some ball and enjoy some of their best play this season. But we’re only left to wonder what might have been if this strategy had been tried a lot earlier.
The Brumbies started the match off well, but it appeared Matt Giteau had left his kicking boots at home (along with the reserves’ jerseys) as he missed his first two attempts at penalty goals from handy positions.
The Highlanders took their chances and within the space of three minutes Uncle Fester look-a-like Jason Rutledge had scored back-to-back tries, both set up from deep within their half. Rutledge showed a great pair of hands in collecting Jimmy Cowan’s well-weighted kick to score the first try in the left corner.
The Brumbies were mixing up their first receiver options and it took until the 30th minute for them to register their first points of the night, when Giteau, who was standing at second receiver, dived over after the forwards put sustained pressure on the Highlanders’ line. His conversion to make the score 15–7 kept his side in touch with the hosts.
In the shadows of half-time the Brumbies received another penalty and this time Christian Lealiifano stepped up to attempt the shot at goal, but he too was unsuccessful. It appeared the confidence of the team dropped a few notches as they headed to the sheds on the back of another missed opportunity.
The second half started like the first, with some expansive play shown by both teams despite the effects of rain earlier in the week. Highlanders flyhalf Colin Slade limped off early in the half and was replaced by Tony Brown, who made an immediate impact with a penalty goal. Giteau also landed a three-pointer for the visitors after a penalty for offside play.
The Highlanders defended admirably on their line as they repelled wave after wave of Brumbies attacks throughout the second half. A yellow card to Tony Brown helped the Brumbies breach the Highlanders’ line when Andrew Smith — not Small, as the commentators called him — took advantage of the extra man and scored a well-deserved try to make the difference six points.
In a scene reminiscent of last week’s game, the Brumbies had to defend their line against a series of pick-and-drives from the opposition. The pressure proved too much for them when inspirational Clan captain Jamie Mackintosh emerged from the bottom of the pile with a five-pointer, effectively sealing the result.
The Brumbies kept battling for a losing bonus point and were rewarded with a try to Patrick Phibbs with two minutes to go. Giteau’s missed conversion left the score at 26–20, and that’s where it stayed.
With their season effectively over, the Brumbies could do worse than stick with the three playmaker option, but experiment with the starting positions as they try to work out a combination for the future. It’s a process that might take time to produce the goods, but time is something they have plenty of — and it sure beats running around non-tackling witches hats in the pre-season.
Highlanders 26 Rutledge 2, Mackintosh tries; Slade con, pen, Brown 2 pens def Brumbies 20 Giteau, A Smith, Phibbs tries; Giteau con pen.
Put his hand up: I’m not sure that any of the Wallabies in the Brumbies squad put a hand up. At a stretch I’d say Matt Giteau looked OK at times, but his goalkicking let down his overall performance.
Did himself no favours: Adam Ashley-Cooper ran onto the field, and that was probably his longest run of the night in what has been a tough week for him. I don’t think wing is his best position.
Bolter watch: Christian Lealiifano –The backline has looked better since his return.