SYDNEY – The ACT Brumbies went to the top of Super Rugby AU but were pressed to the final whistle in a nail-biting 24-22 victory over the winless NSW Waratahs on Friday.
In a dramatic climax, Tom Cusack was sin-binned for a second time in the match for cynically knocking the ball down in a maul and, from the scrum win, the Waratahs' James Ramm scored wide out.
Will Harrison had the chance to force a draw and extra time but his conversion attempt was wide of the posts for the Brumbies to hang on for the win.
The defending champions led 24-10 at half-time but didn't score a point in the second half as the Waratahs, who sacked their coach Rob Penny during the week after five losses, clawed back to go within a whisker of an upset.
"The Waratahs were very good tonight, they put us under pressure and we were very lucky to sneak away with that," Brumbies scrum-half Nic White said.
The Brumbies have now won 11 of their last 12 Super Rugby games against the Waratahs, which included their last eight on the bounce, but the Waratahs' gritty performance gave promise of improved times ahead.
Only in February the Brumbies smashed the Waratahs by 51 points (61-10) for their biggest winning margin over another Australian team in Super Rugby history, so it was a startling turnaround at the Sydney Cricket Ground.
The Waratahs have been in turmoil following the dramatic sacking of coach Penney and the team was bolstered by the return from injury of skipper and scrum-half Jake Gordon, who played the full 80 minutes.
It only took the Brumbies three minutes to score the opening try through a solo effort by fullback Tom Banks, who beat off four tackles, and winger Tom Wright carried over an ineffectual tackle from Jack Maddocks to score in the corner for 10-0.
But the Waratahs dug in and a Will Harrison penalty and a close-range converted try from prop Harry Johnson-Holmes levelled the scores midway through the half.
That stung the Brumbies and, off a lineout win, the ball was spun out to winger Andy Muirhead, who beat a couple of tackles to score wide out, allowing Noah Lolesio to add the extras.
The Brumbies forward pack rumbled over for a pushover try from a lineout win, with hooker Folau Fainga'a planting the ball over the try-line against the disintegrating Waratahs pack to push the lead to 24-10 before half-time.
The Brumbies went a man down shortly after the resumption when open-side flanker Cusack was sin-binned for the first time for repeated infringements.
The Waratahs got a deserved second try after a charge down by lock Jeremy Williams led to Harrison scampering over near the posts. His conversion had the home team trailing by seven points into the final 10 minutes.
The Brumbies lost their second player to the sin bin with Rory Scott in the final minutes as the Waratahs pressed their try-line leading up to Cusack's red card and the drama-charged finish.