Super Rugby Pacific: ACT Brumbies keep Aussie hopes alive with quarter-final win over Highlanders at Canberra

ACT Brumbies have upfield Australian Super Rugby Pacific honour, depriving the competition of an all-NZ final four with a quarter-final victory over the Highlanders at Canberra.

For much of the first half, an upset appeared on the cards, as the southerners took the contest to the ruffled home side. They grabbed a 16-10 lead through a converted try by winger Jona Nareki, but lost it again after the halftime siren and were never in the hunt thereafter.

Brumbies hooker Billy Pollard and winger Adam Muirhead both had try doubles, as they cruised towards a semi-final showdown agains the Blues at Auckland's Eden Park next weekend. 

Brumbies celebrate a try against the Highlanders.
Brumbies celebrate a try against the Highlanders. Photo credit: Getty Images

The Highlanders opened the scoring, with first-five Cam Millar slotting an early penalty in the opening minutes, and then held out the initial assaults from the error-prone Brumbies.

The home side almost had a try, when fullback Tom Wright kicked ahead, the ball was recovered behind the line by counterpart Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens, but winger Corey Toole pounced on the loose ball to score. Replays showed Toole had knocked the ball forward, so no try.

From the Highlanders dropout, the ball shifted right and opposite Muirhead scored instead.

Playing at the right end of the field, the visitors retook the lead through two more penalties to Millar, but after half an hour, Brumbies first-five Noah Lolesio grabbed it back with a penalty of his own. 

Their advantage was shortlived, as the HIghlanders shifted the ball left from a lineout and Nareki was too powerful for his markers.

Winger Timoci Tavatavanawai seemed about to race away for another, when he plucked a loose Brumbies pass out of the air in midfield, but he was called back for interference at a lineout.

With halftime in sight, the home side had a chance to snatch the lead back with an attacking lineout. After 10 phases, the forwards drove Pollard over and Lolesio's conversion after the siren gave them a 17-16 edge at the break.

From the restart, the Brumbies seemed a different side, immediately charging onto attack, with flanker Jahrome Brown held up over the line. Playing under penalty advantage, they took a quick tap and Pollard wrestled over for a try double. 

They grabbed another, when Lolesio kicked across the field for Muirhead, who toed the ball past Millar and gathered for his double. Within three minutes, the Highlanders' hopes of an upset were all but gone and they would never again trouble the scoreboard.

Wright has shoved into touch, as he sprinted for the corner, but another penalty from Lolesio eased the hosts further clear.

The match ended with the visitors desperately trying to score a consolation try, but Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens was twice deprived, as the Brumbies defence proved impregnable.

"That first half, we were really clinical and we showed our game can work," reflected Highlanders captain Bill Harmon. "In the second half, we gave their outsides a chance and we know how dangerous they can be.

"They really punished us right from the start of that second half and we struggled to get back into it from there. Bit of a bummer, but that's just the game."

The result also sees the Hurricanes locked into a home semi-final against the Chiefs, with New Zealand guaranteed at least one finalist - but not necessarily on this side of the Tasman - in two weeks.

The Brumbies can still host the final, if they beat the Blues and Chiefs get up over the Hurricanes.

ACT Brumbies 32 (Pollard 2, Muirhead 2 tries; Lolesio 3 conversions & 2 penalties) Highlanders 16 (Nareki try; Millar 3 penalties & conversion)