The Highlanders’ season is up and running with a trip to the Crusaders on the horizon after a try from replacement loose forward Teariki Ben-Nicholas following the final whistle snatched a 23-22 win against the Brumbies.
Clearly stung by the loss to the Sharks last week, the Highlanders were much more physical and smart with their game management on a wet Canberra night, while lock Josh Dickson got through a mountain of good work.
They refused to die in the final minutes while trailing on the scoreboard and after a crucial turnover by James Lentjes they laid siege to the Brumbies line before Ben-Nicholas crashed over – much to the delight of the coaching box.
The Highlanders also had to contend with the sin binning of Sio Tomkinson, who was yellow carded off for high contact on Wallabies fullback Tom Banks early in the second half, and two costly missed penalties from Josh Ioane.
Tomkinson was sent off for 10 minutes in the 44th minute. The wing hit Brumbies fullback Tom Banks high, rocking back his head, but after multiple reviews referee Nic Berry deemed that the initial contact was shoulder to shoulder.
It could have been worse for Tomkinson, whose brutal tackling style can put fear into opponents when he gets it right but can hurt his own side when he gets it wrong.
But the 14-man Highlanders survived an assault on their line after Tomkinson’s offence and didn’t concede a point when he was off the field.
But they had no answer to the Brumbies driving maul – a weapon that is almost unstoppable under the current laws – and conceded three tries Brumbies hooker Folau Fainga’a.
The Brumbies took advantage of some overeagerness in defence in the first half, piggybacking up the field after repeat Highlanders penalties to drive over twice from their lineout maul inside the first half-hour.
There were some grim faces in Highlanders’ coaching box as they were pinged seven times by Berry in that opening period.
However, Nareki struck back right after Fainga’a’s second try, with the livewire wing charging down a kick from Brumbies No 10 Noah Lolesio to collect his second five-pointer in his first two Super Rugby games.
The Highlanders appeared to have a plan to rattle Lolesio in just his third Super Rugby game and it worked, with the young playmaker making multiple mistakes.
By contrast, Highlanders No 10 Mitch Hunt mixed up his kicking game well and for long periods the Highlanders looked the better side, although their scrum wobbled in the final quarter and brought the Brumbies back into the contest.
The Highlanders lost Rob Thompson before the game, with Michael Collins stepping into the No 13 jersey and Tei Walden coming onto the bench.
However, in greasy conditions after some showers in Canberra there were few chances for the wide men to get their mitts on the ball.
That meant the Highlanders had to roll up their sleeves to get the job done and they responded to that challenge until the very end, when Ben-Nicholas showed his power from close range.
Those early rumours of the Highlanders’ demise might well have been exaggerated.
Highlanders 23 (Jona Nareki, Teariki Ben-Nicholas tries, Josh Ioane 3 pens, 2 cons) bt Brumbies 22 (Folau Fainga’a (3) tries, Noah Lolesio con, Ryan Lonergan pen, con) HT: 13-12
This content was originally published here.