Before a crowd of just over 18,000 fans, the Brumbies hosted the Cheetahs of South Africa in a Super Rugby playoff game – the first for the Brumbies since 2004.
It was around seven degrees at kick-off, as the sun slowly set atop the Mal Meninga stand. The Cheetahs won the toss and elected to receive. Brumbies coach Jake White elected to have his team run into the swirling and unpredictable wind for the first half, which may have proven very wise.
The game got off to a bit of a slow start, with neither team giving much ground. First blood went to the home side after a ruck infringement by the visitors lead to a handy three points for the Brumbies via Lealilfano’s boot.
It was an infuriatingly sluggish match, with both teams possessing a very strong defensive mindset. There were few line breaks, and very few handling errors initially. The Brumbies really had the measure of the Cheetahs from scrums, out muscling their front five most of the time. However, the Brumbies chink in the armour was revealed half way through the initial stanza, when they started to lose their own line-outs.
The referee provided very balanced officiating, keeping both teams fairly honest around the breakdown. Penalties went in both directions for the occasional ‘not releasing’, particularly when players had possession in isolation. The attrition started to show as many forwards were treated for injuries throughout the first and second halves, with a few players off to the blood bin. By half time, the Cheetahs had scored the only try of the first half (but missed the sideline conversion) and the Brumbies ahead by one point, to lead 6-5.
As for the Cheetahs first half try, it was the result of some luck and some excellent cross field play, which left the Brumbies exposed on the wing. From a set play, the visitors flung the ball out wide, about 20 meters out, and managed to capitalize on the failure of players to mark up accordingly.
At the start of the second half, the Brumbies ran with the wind to their backs – which probably helped settle goal kicking, after Lealilfano had suffered from a number of fairly easy penalty attempts failing to cross in the first half.
Momentum sat with the Brumbies for most of the second half, with the home team notching up a number of successful penalty goals, and stayed with the team up to the final ten minutes of the game. The Brumbies were incredibly unlucky to be denied a well deserved try, as the Cheetahs committed what must surely have ranked as a series of professional fouls, and I was quite surprised that not a single Cheetah was given a yellow card for intentional offsides, less than two meters from their own try line.
Leading into the final ten minutes of play, the Cheetahs held possession for what seemed like a lifetime – kudos to the Brumbies for keeping their discipline mostly intact; until a very sketchy patch of broken field play. The Cheetahs had received two penalties in succession, but training by seven points, six minutes from full-time, they elected for quick taps in both instances. What looked like a Cheetah playing the ball off his feet lead to a second try in the corner right on the final hooter. The attempted sideline conversion would have tied the game up at 15-all, but happily hooked left and missed.
This left the assembled crowd with a jubilant, if somewhat anti-climactic result and a faint hope that the home team will give the Bulls something to think about next weekend in South Africa. The Brumbies were probably the better team on the night, but it was such a close match and both teams should take some pride away from their performance on the pitch that night.
Man of the match was awarded to George Smith in what was very probably his last game at Canberra Stadium.
Here are some photos from the match: