A farcical kit clash bemused Super Rugby fans on Friday night as the Highlanders scored a crucial 33-12 trans-Tasman win over the Brumbies in Canberra.
Not for the first time in Super Rugby history the avoidable kit clash saw the Brumbies and Highlanders both wearing predominantly white jerseys and dark shorts.
Players on both sides appeared to be confused by the wall of white in front them in a scenario reminiscent of the Highlanders-Bulls game early last year.
Unlike that clash in Pretoria, however, there were no jersey changes at halftime, making for an awkward spectacle.
The Highlanders win put all the pressure on the Crusaders and the Blues in the race for the final.
It means the Crusaders have to beat the Rebels by 33 points in Sydney on Saturday – with a bonus point – to overtake the Highlanders on the ladder.
The men from Dunedin could even host the final if the Crusaders fail to reach that big target and the Blues slip up against the Force.
Regardless of how those games play out, the Highlanders’ win will go down as a smart and gutsy effort that showed their huge progress this year.
Slick hands from the Brumbies
For the second week in succession they didn’t concede a single point in the second half, although the committed performance may have come a cost.
Wing Jona Nareki was replaced after 60 minutes with a troublesome shoulder, while lock Pari Pari Parkinson was carrying an arm injury when he walked off after an impressive shift.
With 13 players injured and only one current All Black in the squad, the Highlanders out-thought and outworked the Brumbies.
Halfback Aaron Smith grabbed two tries in another standout performance, and his second try at the start of the second half put the Highlanders 21-12 up, by three tries to two.
In-form flanker Billy Harmon went over 10 minutes later as the Highlanders caught the Brumbies napping on the short side from a clever lineout move, and the bonus point victory suddenly looked like a genuine possibility.
Sio Tomkinson ran a brutal line from another Smith pass to score the Highlanders’ fifth try after 63 minutes, as the Highlanders turned up the physicality.
The back-row unit of Kazuki Himeno, Harmon and Hugh Renton was outstanding at the tackle contest, with Himeno repeatedly putting his hand up for the hard carries.
Despite a rocky last five minutes, the Highlanders held on and the celebrations after the game indicated that they knew they have given themselves a real chance of playing in next week’s decider.
The Highlanders started with the lion’s share of territory, but some uncharacteristic inaccuracy at lineout time cost them.
Twice they turned the ball over in good positions as the Brumbies muscled up defensively, and the Highlanders were then made to pay as Len Ikitau opened the scoring for the home side after 14 minutes with a well worked try.
However, the Highlanders got their maul working at the third time of asking, and co-captain Ash Dixon crashed over.
The Highlanders were determined to play the game in Brumbies territory, with midfielder Michael Collins repeatedly stabbing kicks in behind the defensive line.
The territorial pressure paid off and Smith scored fine try after 26 minutes. In-form wing Nareki exploded onto a Mitch Hunt pass to burst open the defence and passed inside to Smith, who was running the support line.
The Brumbies hit back again with a maul try of their own after the Highlanders were penalised three times in succession by referee Mike Fraser after initially failing to deal with the restart.
As expected, the Highlanders found the Brumbies hard to break down with ball in hand. The home side competed heavily at the breakdown and brought good line speed to the contest.
The Highlanders scrum had the edge and No 12 Scott Gregory got over the gainline at times, although he also copped a heavy tackle from Brumbies No 6 Rob Valetini after a high pass from Hunt exposed his ribs.
That staunch defence meant the Highlanders had to fight for every metre, and although they went into the sheds with a 14-12 lead the bonus point victory still looked like a mountain to climb.
However, the Highlanders kept their composure and took their chances when they came up in the second half. They are now within touching distance of the final.
Highlanders 33 (Ash Dixon, Aaron Smith (2), Billy Harmon, Sio Tomkinson tries, Mitch Hunt 4 cons). Brumbies 12 (Len Ikitau, Lachlan Lonergan tries) HT: 14-12
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