The underdog ACT Brumbies continue to earn respect when you least expect it after the Super Rugby surprise packet almost secured one of the biggest upset wins in the club’s history last night.
Despite missing their eight Wallabies representatives and injured stars Joseph Tomane, Christian Lealiifano and Matt Toomua, the baby Brumbies went down fighting to Wales in a 25-15 loss at Canberra Stadium.
For a fleeting moment late in the second half, the Brumbies and their supporters thought they could do the impossible and beat the Six Nations champions in their only mid-week match of their Australian tour.
In a sign of respect, Wales opted to kick two penalty goals in the final 12 minutes to ensure they didn’t suffer the same fate as their countrymen who lost in Canberra in 1978 and 1996.
The conservative end to the match is proof of how much has changed at Brumbyland in the past 18months.
Last year the side struggled to win a Super Rugby match.
But under Jake White’s guidance and even with players in their first professional game, the team had the belief they could beat one of the best Test teams in the world.
Had the Brumbies’ first-half defence been stronger and the young team taken its chances after the break, they could have caused a major boilover.
They fell short, but captain Ben Hand said the strong performance will boost the club as it chases a drought breaking finals appearance when Super Rugby resumes on June 30.
"I think [the belief] has been on display all year … in previous years, Brumbies teams would have fallen over at half-time against an international team [and trailing 19-6]," Hand said.
"The way in which the boys fought back was first-rate and it’s a hallmark of this team.
"I did think we could win, I honestly did and we had two or three opportunities and it was just unfortunate we weren’t able to take them."
The Brumbies got off to a horror start with the Welsh clearly dominating.
Whenever they got within striking distance of the line, they looked almost certain to score. They finally broke through when flyhalf James Hook barged over from close range after some brilliant lead-up work.
Just eight minutes later the visitors had their second when flanker Justin Tipuric scored.
Tupiric was outstanding with his work at the breakdown and could be a dangerous addition to the Welsh bench for their second Test against the Wallabies in Melbourne on Saturday.
The game threatened to be a blowout when Wales skipper Alun Wyn Jones scored on the half-time hooter to give his team 19-6 lead.
But the Brumbies returned more determined and energised after the break and had Wales seriously struggling.
On multiple occasions they went within inches of scoring, but a lack of continuity with untested combinations cruelled their chances.
They chipped away at the lead and cut it back just four points deep into the second half.
With time running out, speedy winger Tom Cox made a superb bust and almost raced the length of the field which would have given the Brumbies the lead.
But the Welsh staunchly held on and Hook booted two late penalty goals to secure the first win of their tour.
Wales will hope the hard-fought win will help get their trip to Australia back on track. They lost to the Wallabies in Brisbane last weekend and will try to reverse the result in the second Test of the series in Melbourne.
Their defence was superb and they dominated the Brumbies’ set piece and at the breakdown. Wales coach Rob Howley said: "I think it’s a job well done. To back up on any tour with a mid-week team … there was great spirit and character.
"I thought we were clinical in the first half … and the defence we had in the second half is what we’ll need again [against the Wallabies."
WALES 25 (James Hook, Justini Tipuric, Alun Wyn Jones tries; James Hook 2 penalties, 2 conversions) bt ACT BRUMBIES 15 (Zack Holmes 5 penalties) at Canberra Stadium last night. Referee: Ian Smith. Crowd: 7248.