As Yogi Berra would have said it was déjà-vu all over again for the Highlanders in Dunedin last night as they couldn’t quite close out what would have been a brilliant Super 14-opening victory over a polished ACT Brumbies side.
But once again it was close, but no cigar, as the Brumbies snuck home 33-31 on the back of an 80th-minute Christian Lealiifano dropped goal to snatch victory from a gallant Highlanders side who will take the two bonus points they earned as only the slimmest of consolation.
Marc Hinton writes that in a thrilling and oscillating opening fixture of this new season, the Highlanders and Brumbies took turns in the driver’s seat, before in the end they slugged it out toe-to-toe over a sensational finish to an encounter that, for the neutral at least, was a quite special way to get things under way for 2009.
The Highlanders led 19-0 in as many minutes; the Brumbies stormed back with 30 unanswered points to grab a firm hold on proceedings; then the home side pulled themselves off the ropes to rattle off a dozen straight of their own to all but grab a famous victory.
Unfortunately it was not to be, and the Highlanders will be near heart-broken, given that this result mirrors their first five last year, when they offered plenty through those handful of matches, but could never quite find a way to get over the line. In fact, it was an equally frustrating 20-22 defeat to the Brumbies in Canberra in the second round that seemed to confine the southern men to the status of gallant losers for the campaign.
That was an aspect of an otherwise encouraging display from the Highlanders, who in the middle stages looked out on their feet, that was acknowledged last night by skipper Jimmy Cowan.
“It’s disappointing, and we can’t afford that,” said a stricken Cowan afterwards. “We want to be known as a team that can win games, not just be competitive.
“It’s a trend we set last year and we’re trying to get away from that. It’s a harsh reality but the boys will learn from it and we’ll try and regroup for next week.”
It was a tough night all round for the Highlanders, who not only lost the thriller, their captain and vice-captain to injury early in the piece, but also an early 19-0 lead that appeared to have the home side firmly in control.
But in the end the Brumbies won because they kept their cool when it counted against a Highlanders side that showed plenty of promise, but were pretty comprehensively outplayed over the second and third quarters by the visiting Australians.
It was just the second win on Carisbrook for the men from the Australian capital, though their second in succession as they produced an impressive response to a magical first 20 minutes from the Highlanders, then had one more little flourish up their sleeves when it counted.
As dream starts went the Highlanders’ was fantasy land stuff. Inside the first 20 minutes the home side had three tries, led 19-0, and coach Glenn Moore was pinching himself to make sure he hadn’t dozed off in the stands.
He hadn’t. His side had attacked with stunning efficiency, and punished the Brumbies dearly for failing to nail key tackles when they presented.
Jason Shoemark, the Magpie back in his second stint in the south, had the first score after Johnny Leota slipped nicely between Stephen Moore and Lealiifano to set up the opening; Fetu’u Vainikolo the second when Israel Dagg’s popped pass off the deck gave him enough space down the left to demonstrate he’s lost none of that renowned pace of his; and Daniel Bowden wrapped up an outstanding opening quarter when he produced some kick-chase-dash magic to secure a brilliant try for the big lead.
It was about then that the Highlanders ran out of puff. And their key leaders.
Skipper Cowan was the first to depart with an elbow injury that looked on the serious side just 16 minutes in, and soon after his deputy Jamie Mackintosh also trudged off, with a knee knock, leaving Shoemark to assume the captaincy.
Not coincidentally, the Brumbies rather worked their way back into the game over the second quarter, Stirling Mortlock charging through on the cutback to cross for his 50th try in Super rugby, with Mark Gerrard’s conversion and a late penalty reducing the deficit to nine by the break.
The most alarming aspect of a promising first half for the Highlanders must have been their inability to occupy enemy territory, the Brumbies spending 75 percent of the opening half camped in blue and gold land.
It was all the Brumbies in the opening stanza of the second spell, Mortlock crossing for his second try after just a couple of minutes, Adam Ashley-Cooper ghosting through some non-existent Highlanders defence six minutes later and Mark Gerrard making it 30-19 to the visitors before the quarter was out with a second straight try executed off lineout time.
At that stage the Highlanders looked out on their feet.
But appearances were deceiving as finally the home side managed to get their hands on some ball. Prop Chris King bullocked over for a try to get the home side back to within four, and then, as the Highlanders set up camp in Brumbies territory, replacement hooker Jason Rutledge had the score that regained the lead, 31-30.
Crucially, Daniel Bowden missed the conversion of that 77th-minute touchdown, and there was just enough time left for the Brumbies to work field position and put Lealiifano in the pocket for the match-winning strike.
The Brumbies were led superbly by their class acts Mortlock, George Smith, Mark Chisholm and Gerrard, while Lealiifano showed admirable composure for such an untested performer.
But the Highlanders showed plenty, too. Their backline looked excellent early, and their forwards stuck their heads down and charged hard late. It will be little solace, but they will probably play a lot worse before this season is over and end up on the winning side.
Highlanders 31: Jason Shoemark, Fetu’u Vainikolo, Daniel Bowden, Chris King, Jason Rutledge tries; Bowden 3 cons .
ACT Brumbies 33: Stirling Mortlock 2, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Mark Gerrard tries; Gerrard 2 pens, 2 cons; Christian Lealiifano dg.Tweet