Brumbies sweating on Wallaby’s return to fix serious flaw for semifinal against Blues


The ACT Brumbies will have everything crossed for the perfect recovery of James Slipper’s troublesome calf after beating the Highlanders to book a Super Rugby semifinal against the Blues at Eden Park.

The Brumbies’ third choice loosehead Harry Vella was targeted and overwhelmed in the first half but the Brumbies overcame their issues thanks to some sparkling rugby, to win 32-16, without conceding a point in the second period.

They had four scrum penalties awarded against them in the first half, had six turnovers and no successful scrums as Vella suffered a nightmare up against Jermaine Ainsley.

At one stage referee Angus Gardner lectured hooker Billy Pollard: “the message is you need to stay in the contest and keep it off the floor. You’ve been beaten under pressure.”

Vella is the third choice Brumbies loosehead and the loss through injury of Slipper and Blake Schoupp was keenly felt.

While Schoupp’s season is over, Slipper said at halftime that he was on course to return from his calf injury in the semifinal: “I should be okay for next week. I’m up and running now.”

The Highlanders clearly came with a plan to smash the Brumbies’ set-piece and it worked. After the fourth penalty skipper Allan Alaalatoa went stropping off in a heavy fog of f-bombs.

After three quarterfinal blowouts – all done and dusted by halftime – it was a relief to be served up a contest. There were five lead changes in the opening 40 minutes and it was the visitors who started it with a penalty through Cam Millar.

The Brumbies responded well and went close when Corey Toole was just unable to gather a loose pass out on the left wing.

A few minutes later the impressive Charlie Cale stole a lineout and it came to Toole who kicked deep and the Highlanders were able to clean up in-goal.

While the Brumbies were losing every scrum, they were dominating elsewhere. Rob Valetini was making strong inroads and after one powerful burst Tom Wright got the chance to show some magic.

The fullback screamed forward and at pace played a wonderfully deft grubber that was perfectly weighted towards the left corner flag.

Tom Wright of the Brumbies. (Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images)

Having slid back into his in-goal Highlanders No.15 Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens took the risky move of trying to find dry land. Toole reefed the ball loose and touched it down – after a long delay it was ruled a knock on.

The Brumbies weren’t to be denied and moments later a perfectly executed backline move ended with Cale slipping a neat pass to put Andy Muirhead over.

“That’s the Brumbies in 2024, the forwards get front foot ball, quality catch pass running lines, perfect execution,” said Morgan Turinui on Stan Sport.

“That’s as good a try as you’ll see, excellent work from the Brumbies,” added Justin Harrison.

Hampered by their set piece woes, the Brumbies ceded too much ground and Millar was perfect from the tee. He traded penalties with Noah Lolesio then the Kiwis shocked the hosts with a soft try.

With penalty advantage in their locker, the Highlanders spread the ball wide left and the Brumbies were caught too narrow.

There was a hint of a forward pass from Sam Gilbert to give Jona Nareki a decent run at the line. He went through an unbalanced Toole and carried Ryan Lonergan across the line.

The Brumbies were six points down and it looked as if their poor discipline might cost them a halftime deficit.

But with the clock running down the hosts put together 12 phases before Pollard burrowed over. Gardner was unsighted but the TMO gave it instantly.

At the break Stephen Larkham bemoaned the scrum woes and discipline problems but the Wallaby legend was typically laconic.

The soothing manner of his words and calm nature must have had an energising effect on his players, who burst out of the rooms and were over again in an instant – Pollard scoring his second try in three minutes either side of the break.

While the Highlanders came with a narrow focus and the flawless boot of Millar, the Brumbies carried a clear edge in creativity and their next try summed that up perfectly.

Lolesio hit a sweet cross field kick towards the right wing where Muirhead sprinted forward and controlled it as deftly as Real Madrid’s new marquee signing Kylian Mbappe, beating a defender and opening up an easy run to the try line.

It was a moment made for Justin Harrison, the master of the word salad: “He did that like an FA Cup Socceroo!”. Whatever that means.

What a touch! Andy Muirhead ????

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Muirhead later explained he played soccer as a young un, only to quit because his twin sister was better than him.

It was the kind of freakish moment that destroys spirits, and Larkham turned the screw from the bench.

The scrum was no longer an issue, and the Brumbies backups played with admirable control.

The Highlanders finished with concerted pressure on the Brumbies line, but the hosts defended strongly to preserve a second half shutout.

They will face a Blues team that swept aside Fijian Drua in the first half earlier Saturday, but have their own issues up front with an injury to Patrick Tuipulotu.

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