At Mt Smart Stadium, Auckland: Moana Pasifika 32 (William Havili try 21min, Joe Apikotoa try 27min, penalty try 40min, Lotu Inisi try 76min; Christian Leali’ifano 2 con, 2 pen) Brumbies 22 (Connal McInerney try 13min, Lachlan Lonergan try 57min, Pete Samu try 83min; Noah Lolesio 2 con, drop goal). excl. tax: 19-7.
Red card: Sekope Kepu (Moana Pasifika) 11min
Yellow cards: Connal McInerney (Brumbies) 39min, Jahrome Brown (Brumbies) 41min (first half)
A tough debut season has ended in stunning style for Moana Pasifika.
The Super Rugby Pacific wooden spooners belied an early red card to captain Sekope Kepu in his 150th appearance to stun the Brumbies 32-22 in Auckland on Saturday night.
Coming to town assured of a home quarterfinal and needing only anything better than a three-point defeat to jump back ahead of the Chiefs into third spot on the ladder, the Canberrans instead left Mt Smart Stadium consigned to fourth position.
It was a third-straight defeat for a side which had been looking title contenders. But no-one saw this latest one coming. Not least against a team backing up from Tuesday’s loss to the Force, and certainly not when Kepu was given his marching orders in the 11th minute for his high tackle on Andy Muirhead.
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It was the most sorry way to end the former Wallaby’s milestone match, one in which he was joined in taking the field by his three sons, and where he led a special pre-game rendition of his side’s Fa’avae.
But by the end, his smile was a mile wide, after watching from the sidelines as his troops put in a gutsy defensive display to strongly cling on to their surprise lead.
After the one-man-up Brumbies struck early from a lineout drive, things looked rather ominous for the hosts. But it was as if the skipper’s sending off actually galvanized Moana, because all of a sudden they then went on to dominate the remainder of the first spell.
Somehow, a man down, they found a huge overlap for William Havili to open their account, then just half a dozen minutes later Joe Apikotoa – only off the bench thanks to Kepu’s red requiring a new prop – scored off a driving maul.
And get a load of this – at a time when Moana were playing with 14, they enjoyed a stunning 94 per cent possession in a 15-minute period where the tackle count read 53-0 to the Brumbies.
It got worse for the visitors. After warning them for repeated infringements, referee Mike Fraser had no hesitation in waving a yellow card to Connal McInerney in the 39th minute for slowing ruck ball, then all of a minute later came a penalty try and Jahrome Brown being binned for pulling down the maul .
Behind 19-7 and entering the second spell with 13 men, the Brumbies kept their heads, and Noah Lolesio even slotted a drop goal to narrow the margin.
And while Pete Samu’s effort in the corner was saved by the hand of Christian Leali’ifano – a former Brumbies stalwart – the visitors’ pack really began to roll their sleeves up, and after Lachlan Lonergan went over from a lineout drive they were right back in it.
But despite all the Brumbies’ pressure down the right end, they just couldn’t find another crucial blow.
From a penalty in front of the sticks Ryan Lonergan coughed up a tap, then with eight minutes to play and the visitors banging away on their line, Lotu Inisi came up with a crucial steal and Leali’ifano banged a 50-22 kick.
From there there was a sensational scrum by the hosts to force a carry-back, and then from the next pack down it was that man Inisi who went over to seal the incredible win.
The big moment
Moana Pasifika captains Sekope Kepu’s 11th minute red card for a high tackle. Instead of breaking the home side, it made them, with their skipper and his 150th clearly meaning so much to them.
9/10: For a game which offered so little, it over-delivered in spades. There was a bit of everything with the cards and the swings in momentum, with the massive underdogs managing to pull it off.
The big picture
Moana Pasifika’s win wasn’t enough for them to avoid the wooden spoon, finishing two points shy of fellow newcomers the Fijian Drua, but it will certainly give them plenty of belief going into next year. As for the Brumbies, it’s fourth place instead of third, still a home quarterfinal, but a third loss on the trot going into those finals.
Moana Pasifika center Levi Aumua was at his brutal best with the ball, constantly punching his side over the gainline with a game-high 78 meters on 11 carries, as well as beating a game-high eight defenders and offering two offloads.