Brumbies back on song to down misfiring Tahs

Photo: AJF Photography

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One win from four was not the start the Brumbies had prepared for in the 2019 Super Rugby competition, but they bounced back in style on Friday night to down the Waratahs 19-13 in Canberra, and maintain their hold on the Dan Vickerman Cup.

In a game of tight margins, it was the visitor’s that enjoyed the bulk of territory and possession, without ever looking like they would make enough good use of it. Time and again the Waratahs were guilty of too much shuffle ball, and struggled to break down the resolute home defence as a result, while the Brumbies took their chances when they came, largely off the back of their renowned driving maul.

Hooker Folau Fainga’a grabbed a double, and would have had a third had an illegal collapse not led to a penalty try instead, as the Waratahs were forced to deal with two yellow cards under the weight of pressure. And given the fact they played a quarter of the game a man down, constructed precious little in the opposition 22, and left points out there through the unusually errant boot of an off-colour Bernard Foley, a losing bonus point maybe wasn’t the worst result for a team yet to click in 2019.

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It was a tidy start from the Waratahs, building off a penalty in their own half to go through the phases to the edge of the Brumbies red zone. And after Folau Fainga’a was caught offside, Bernard Foley had what looked like a routine shot at the posts. However, his effort cannoned off an upright and back into play, only for the bounce to favour the arriving Michael Hooper, who leapt in the air to claim possession and span away from several bemused Brumbies to dive for the line.

Michael Hooper_Waratahs v Brumbies_2019_AJF

Michael Hooper goes in for the opening try – Photo: AJF Photography

Bizarrely, Foley struck the same post with his conversion attempt from virtually the same spot, and the flyhalf’s uncharacteristic start continued when he failed to find touch after Harry Johnson-Holmes had won a penalty at the breakdown. Those missed opportunities came back to bite them, when the Brumbies finally got some field position to work with and duly carved out a reply.

Scott Sio could take some of the plaudits, his seismic hit on Ned Hanigan forcing the turnover, which led to a penalty that was unsurprisingly kicked to touch. But instead of unleashing their trademark maul, the home side mixed it up to come infield and hit the runners coming around the corner, and when one of those runners is Folau Fainga’a from five metres out, good luck stopping him.

The try was the dynamic hooker’s fifth in the opening five games of the season, making him the first Brumby to score in five consecutive games since Andrew Walker back in 2003.

Warming to the task, the home side were almost in again before the end of the first quarter. Playing with the advantage after a dominant scrum, some lovely hands in midfield gave Irae Simone the chance to put a grubber in behind for the chasing Tom Banks, and it needed some desperate scramble from Hanigan to stop the flying Wallaby grabbing a second.

A lovely chip kick off the outside of his boot from the impressive Locky McCaffrey pinned the Waratahs near their own red zone, and forced Jake Gordon to concede the throw. This time the rolling maul was called upon, and after one surge was thwarted by an illegal collapse, they kept their foot on the throat and went again. It paid off, the powerful rumble forward unable to be disrupted, and it was that man Fainga’a at the end of it to flop over for a double.

Folau Faingaa_Brumbies v Waratahs_2019_AJF

Folau Fainga’a bagged his fifth and sixth tries of the season – Photo: AJF Photography

The visitor’s positive opening suddenly seemed a distant memory as their hosts assumed control. Forced to defend manfully without the ball, it was the Waratahs’ inability to make any inroads when they had it that was putting them under even more pressure. Time and again they went through the hands from one side of the field to the other, but without really denting the opposition line.

They did create something tangible off a set-piece play on the half hour, a nice lineout move using decoy runners to send Alex Newsome away down the touchline, only for a barrage of Brumbies to arrive and see him into touch. And their night didn’t improve when Sekope Kepu went to the bin for a swinging arm around McCaffrey’s neck, especially as it also reversed a kickable penalty for Foley.

Keen to run down the clock while they were numerically disadvantaged, the Tahs resorted to patient phase play up the middle. Pick and drives from the forwards were the order of the day, with the odd snipe from scrumhalf Gordon thrown in for good measure, and it finally gave them some front-foot ball.

But they nearly came unstuck right on half-time, a loose carry from Adam Ashley-Cooper pounced on by Tevita Kuridrani, who soccered it some 50 metres upfield to kickstart a foot race. The Wallaby centre just about got there first but with a bevy of Cambridge blue jerseys in tow, and when the ball was recycled towards the posts, it was Ashley-Cooper who was on hand to make amends with a textbook steal.

Given the way the first 40 had panned out, the Tahs must have gone to the sheds with a fair degree of positivity at only being 12-5 behind. And when Kepu returned from the naughty chair five minutes into the second stanza with no further damage on the scoreboard, they had a platform from which to build on.

Alex Newsome_Waratahs v Brumbies_2019_AJF

Alex Newsome dives home to keep the Waratahs in contention – Photo: AJF Photography

A terrific hit on Foley by Simone was undone by a knock-on in the process, and from the resulting scrum, the Waratahs finally clicked. Initially going left through Foley, a couple of damaging runs from Rob Simmons and Kepu attracted defenders, and when Gordon shifted the point of attack, Kurtley Beale had Israel Folau on his outside for an arcing run to the corner, and an offload to Newsome for the try.

Foley’s radar continued to waver as he pushed the conversion well wide for his third miss of the evening, and the Tahs soon found themselves back under pressure.

A penalty to the Brumbies inside their opponents’ 22, was only soured by the sight of Rob Valetini leaving the field with a nasty looking knee injury. But they maintained focus, and after kicking to touch to set up another driving maul that would have seen Fainga’a claim a hat-trick had it not been illegally halted, referee Glenn Jackson ran under the posts for a penalty try, and issued a yellow card to Harry Johnson-Holmes.

Locky McCaffrey_Brumbies v Waratahs_2019_AJF

Locky McCaffrey was a standout – Photo: AJF Photography

Now chasing the game with 20 to go, the Waratahs started to up the pace of their attack with plenty of offloads to try and break the shackles of the Brumbies’ linespeed. But when a revamped pack including Tatafu Polota-Nau won a rare scrum penalty, skipper Hooper pointed to the posts, and Foley broke his duck to make it 19-13.

However, the incumbent Wallaby flyhalf was clearly out of sorts, and when he dropped cold a reverse pass from Beale with the Tahs firmly on the move, it signalled an early exit and a rare appearance for understudy Mack Mason. But before the 23-year-old had a chance to touch the ball, the Brumbies had seemingly scored the match-winner.

The all-action McCaffrey burst from the back of a scrum to race over halfway and put a fine kick into the left corner. Newsome won the race, but in his attempt to keep the ball alive he directed it into the path of the arriving Jordan Jackson-Hope, who gleefully touched down. Or did he? The TMO confirmed the suspicions of ref Jackson that he’d lost it forward as he grounded, and the five-pointer was duly chalked off.

With three minutes to go, the Tahs were left with the challenge of going 80 metres off their own scrum to try and facilitate a win against the odds. They were halfway there when the siren sounded but the Brumbies now had the put in, and after the forwards had done their job, it was left to captain Christian Leali’ifano to smash the ball into the Canberra sky to confirm a much-needed win.

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BRUMBIES 19 (Penalty Try, Folau Fainga’a 2 tries; Christian Leali’ifano con) defeated NSW WARATAHS 13 (Michael Hooper, Alex Newsome tries; Bernard Foley pen) HT 12-5, at GIO Stadium, Canberra

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