PRETORIA: The Brumbies missed out on securing a historic victory but skipper Ben Mowen is adamant his team proved it belongs at the top of the Australian conference.
The Brumbies went within two points of causing the biggest upset of the season on Saturday when they launched a late fightback against the Bulls at Loftus Versfeld.
But a controversial refereeing decision and missed opportunities consigned them to a 36-34 loss and ended their dream of becoming the first Australian team to win in Pretoria since 2006. It wasn't a win, but Jake White's young side left Pretoria with two bonus points to reclaim first place on the Australian table.
''We said we will measure ourselves on whether we win or not, not whether we play well,'' Mowen said. ''We didn't get the win, so as a group we're disappointed. The underlying feeling is the belief this team has got from the last month of football is that we're not measuring ourselves [against other teams] any more. We know where we sit and we firmly believe we should be on top.''
The Brumbies' attack was far superior to that of the Bulls. The visitors sliced the three-time champions open in the first half with brilliant set plays leading to tries for Henry Speight and Jesse Mogg. But ill-discipline in their half gave Bulls sharpshooter Morne Steyn a chance to boot his side to a lead.
Constant penalties and errors halted the Brumbies' momentum in the second half. At one stage the penalty count was 8-2 against the Brumbies. And it was a controversial decision from referee Marius Jonker that put the result beyond the Brumbies' reach.
With the Bulls in front 25-13, Steyn knocked the ball on in his half and every player on the field stopped. Steyn turned away, but breakaway CJ Stander picked up the loose ball and raced 60 metres to score. Publicly the Brumbies have accepted the decision, but privately they are fuming Jonker allowed play to continue despite Steyn clearly losing the ball forward.
White said it was an ''expensive lesson'' for his side after they expected Jonker to stop play. They regrouped to score three tries in the last 11 minutes, but in the end they were their own worst enemy.
Christian Lealiifano missed two conversions and a penalty and Speight dropped the ball over the line in the last 10 minutes.
''You can look back and say, 'Gee we let it slip', but we didn't have the ball for long periods of time,'' White said. ''The players in the change room were a little bit down. A lot of people might have been happy with two points and scoring five tries, but they've got a deflated feeling. Not because they could have won, but probably because they didn't give themselves enough chance.''
Their four-try bonus point and losing by less than seven elevated the Brumbies above the Waratahs on the Australian conference. If they can beat the Lions on Friday night, they will return to Canberra satisfied with their points haul in South Africa.
The Brumbies weren't expected to challenge for a place in the finals when White took over the coaching reins of one of the youngest squads in the competition. ''The one thing I was really pleased about was that the plays we have been training with are working," White said. ''It's reminiscent of the Brumbies of old.''
BULLS 36 (Bjorn Basson, CJ Stander tries Morne Steyn con 7 pens drop goal) bt BRUMBIES 34 (Anthony Hegarty, Jesse Mogg, Ian Prior, Andrew Smith, Henry Speight tries Christian Lealiifano 3 cons pen) at Loftus Versfeld. Referee: Marius Jonker.