The ACT Brumbies had to grind out the 21-9 final qualifier victory over the gritty Western Force under cool skies in Canberra on Saturday night.
The hosts had most of the possession and enjoyed the better field position, but could not shrug off a Force side that was clearly up for it and well organised defensively. In the final analysis, the red card on Force wing and former Chiefs flier Toni Pulu was costly, even though, under Super Rugby AU rules, the Force were only down a man for 20 minutes.
The Force looked pumped up from the get-go, as you would expect in their first finals appearance at this level. They counter-rucked fiercely and disrupted the Brumbies’ attacking flow in their backline. That led to the Brumbies dropping too deep on offence and making uncharacteristic errors.
It was not until the 34th minute that the first points came, via a penalty goal to Force pivot Domingo Miotti.
The Force are limited on attack, and centre Richard Kahui and wing Jordan Olowofela, who scored a hat-trick last weekend, were virtually unemployed in the threequarters.
A try to Brumbies wing Tom Wright after good hands just before the break may have signalled that the home side was cutting loose. Wishful thinking.
Pulu’s expulsion, for a shoulder to the head of Irae Simone, looked marginal, but the Force simply redoubled their defensive efforts. There were to be no free gifts for the Brumbies.
That said, when fullback Tom Banks scored in the corner, again off swift hands, the home side led 12-3 at the half.
Brumby forwards Pete Samu and Folau Fainga’a both departed with what looked to be serious injuries, placing them in doubt for the decider.
Slowly, inexorably, the Brumbies clawed back the initiative. Even when Wright looked to have scored off a sweet Simone grubber, subsequently ruled out by the TMO, there was a feeling that it would take something special to overturn the Brumbies. Ryan Lonergan kicked two late, match-sealing goals, while the penalties, and the pendulum, swung against the Force.
The Brumbies will now face the Queensland Reds in Brisbane on Saturday night, while the Force will prepare to welcome the Chiefs on May 15 in Perth to kick off their Super Rugby Trans-Tasman competition
Brumbies 21 (Tom Wright, Tom Banks tries; Noah Lolesio con, pen; Ryan Lonergan 2 pen)
Force 9 (Domingo Miotti 3 pen) HT: 12-3 Brumbies