Party at the House of Pain

Despite being outscored two tries to one, it was a coming of age win for the Southern men in terms of self-belief. Not to mention a victory that leaves the Champion Brumbies approaching crisis-point after three successive losses.

And there were only inches in it: Brumbies winger Henari Veratau a fingertip away from grounding the match-winner as the hooter sounded. Indeed, while the Highlanders showed the heart they have all season - their determination to kick away ball against a side that can retain possession until Christmas (2007) almost proved fatal.

From the outset, ACT astuteness had clearly replaced blind ambition after last week�s 17-0 loss to the Blues. There was no opting for touch from early penalties - Stephen Larkham�s replacement at pivot Matt Giteau sneaking the tourists very first opportunity for points inside the left-hand upright in the 5th minute. 3-0.

Struggling for fluidity, the Highlanders found themselves further behind after a turnover 12m inside their half allowed George Gregan to suck in his opposite Jimmy Cowan with a slick dummy, then run winger Veratau in for the try. (Just the 9th conceded by the Highlanders this season.) Giteau�s conversion took the Brumbies out to a 10-0 lead.

Returning No 10 Nick Evans responded immediately with a dropkick... although he didn�t look too happy about the bunched-up backline that forced him into it in the first place. Perhaps the next five phases - built around the counter-attacking skills of Highlanders No 14 Neil Brew and centre Anthony Tuitavake - put a smile on his dial.

It earned the homeside another three points as the first quarter of the match drew to a close: 10-6.

Scrappy phases marred the next period of play for both sides. Then Highlanders No 8 Grant Webb got things back on track, romping 23m to the tryline in the 30th minute after a wild knock on from Brumbies speedster Mark Gerrard. Fullback Ben Blair�s conversion handed his men a 13-10 lead.

Blair added a second penalty six minutes later. Then came the bonus on the buzzer. After a long-distance penalty attempt from Evans went astray, Brumbies lock Radike Samo failed to put the ball dead. That was all the Highlanders pack needed to swarm toward the line where Blair grabbed his third penalty... it could easily have been more were it not for some unusually slow distribution from halfback Cowan.

Halftime score: 19-10 Highlanders.

A 6-2 penalty count in favour of the locals quickly evaporated after the break, ensuring the first points of the second 40 were Australian, Giteau�s second three-pointer in the 46th minute: 19-13.

Problems at lineout time compounded Highland efforts to gain field position or pressure Giteau into mistakes.

Tuitavake and his mid-field partner Seilala Mapusua lent the Highlanders critical momentum, but the next points arrived in the arms of Brumbies captain Stirling Mortlock (and the eyes of the TMO Paddy O�Brien) as he spun out of several tackles and crashed over for the try.

Giteau's conversion couldn�t put his side ahead. The lead now just a single point with 19 minutes to play. And the match remained delicately poised... Blair unable to score his team's first points of the second half in the 70th minute, his 40m penalty attempt silencing the terraces as it bounced off the left-hand upright.

With Brumbies prize-poacher George Smith on the prowl, an ACT side that suddenly remembered how dangerous it could be from broken play regained the initiative. Then crucially, with the visitors hot on attack and two minutes remaining, Highlanders No 7 Josh Blackie turned the tables - forcing a tackled Smith into being pinged for holding on.

Game over? Not quite. Just as the fulltime whistle beckoned, Evans' replacement Cameron McIntyre put boot to ball and the Brumbies swooped on the chargedown. 40m. 30m. 15m... and then came Smith's grubber kick into the in-goal.

But the Southern Rugby Gods (and about 10,000 scarfies) were left smiling as replays showed the ball beating the outstretched arms of Veratau into touch.

The Highlanders now cement their place in the top four going into a bye next week.

Final score: 19-18 Highlanders.


Highlanders. Tries: Grant Webb. Conversions: Ben Blair. Penalties: Blair (3). Dropkicks: Nick Evans.

Brumbies. Tries: Henari Veratau, Stirling Mortlock. Conversions: Matt Giteau. Penalties: Giteau (2).

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