REACTION: ‘It’s a high-speed game’

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If we see a better game this season, it will have been a classic.

The Brumbies’ edge-of-your-seat 39-38 win over the Force had everything you want from a rugby match – points aplenty, incredible skill in spite of difficult, greasy conditions in Perth, and fierce determination from every single player involved.

Central to it all was a moment that exemplified the latter quality: Tom Banks red-carded after a brutal head clash with Toni Pulu that left the Brumbies star with a suspected facial fracture.

An onrushing Banks was caught by surprise mid-tackle as Pulu stepped inward, the pair’s heads clashing as the Force winger dropped the ball.

It was enough for a penalty try, the Force’s first of the night – and while being treated for a HIA, Banks was given his marching orders in slightly farcical scenes.

“World Rugby now is all about the welfare of players and head collisions, and you’ve got to make an effort to go low. But five metres out, there’s got to be some sort of mitigating factor,” rugby legend Tim Horan said on Stan Sport.

“When you’re the last defender as a fullback and the player is running down, you’re not expecting him to step inside so your whole focus is there.

“All of a sudden, you’re off-put by the way he steps off his right foot back in.

“It surprises you and he’s going to hit you a bit closer than what you’d normally expect. It’s hard, when you’re a player, and the referees need to understand how that works in a game.

“It’s a tough call.”

The Force, trailing 3-20 at the time, sensed their moment. Remarkably, and to the delight of a parochial home crowd, they would deal the 14-man Brumbies a blitzkrieg, piling on 28 points including four tries in the 20-minute period to take a remarkable lead.

It fell to player of the match Andy Muirhead to steady the ship for the Brumbies, completing his hat-trick shortly after half time as the points rapidly dried up.

They would then hold their nerve at the death to escape with a thrilling one-point victory, in an instant frontrunner for the game of the year.

Speaking after the game, though, Brumbies coach Dan McKellar was typically blunt in his assessment of the Banks red card.

“No I don’t. Honestly, I don’t think it was [a red card],” he told Stan Sport.

“I talk about this all the time: it’s a high-speed, high collision game. Banksy’s coming across at full speed, TP changes direction and there’s a head clash.

“If Tom Banks has got a nasty bone in his body, or goes out there to deliberately hurt someone, then I don’t know the bloke.

“As a game, we’ve got to look at these sorts of things… I’d have an orange card – 20 minute orange card, and then a red card stays for deliberate foul play, punching, gouging, whatever it might be.”

Having lost in similarly heartbreaking fashion to the Brumbies back in Round 1, Force captain Feleti Kaitu’u was a bitterly disappointed man speaking with Stan Sport after the final whistle.

“Against all odds there, with the red card, they managed to sneak away with it again,” he said of the Brumbies’ second-half fightback.

Chief among the skipper’s concerns was another sluggish start by the Force before the Banks red card, who could easily have emerged victorious if not for a dire first 20 minutes that saw the Brumbies score three tries.

“Against a quality opposition like the Brumbies, you can’t afford to give up that much of a lead that early,” Kaitu’u said.

“We’ve got a pretty awesome attacking structure, we haven’t been quite able to execute in recent weeks, but we know that if we get it right, we’re able to put points on the scoreboard and it showed tonight.

“It was great to be able to come back, but against the Brumbies, or any side for that matter, you just can’t afford to give up that many points.”

Kaitu’u’s frustration was clear, but former great Justin Harrison argued the loss was still a giant leap forward for the rising Force.

Toni Pulu of the Force runs the ball against Andy Muirhead of the Brumbies.

Toni Pulu of the Force runs the ball against Andy Muirhead of the Brumbies. (Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)

“It’s not often that you’re in a losing team that outscored a team by 28 points for a period of the game,” he said on Stan Sport.

“It shows the closeness of these two teams – Round 1 when they first played, close, down to the last play of the game, again tonight down to the last play of the game.

“Western Force have got a lot to walk tall off from that game. They have put in a performance that is deserving to garner some support in Perth.”

Horan agreed, praising coach Tim Sampson for the Force’s rapid improvement over the last 12 months.

“Tim Sampson’s done a great job in those last 15 to 18 months with this side, bringing them through off the field first, and now they’re starting to deliver on the field,” he said.

“That’s a very good performance.”

For the Brumbies, Muirhead’s performance was singled out for particular praise, with the winger scoring three of the game’s whopping 11 tries.

In Horan’s eyes, the 28-year old deserved all the acclaim after years of playing second fiddle to his more high-profile teammates.

“He often gets overshadowed by players around him – Len Ikitau, Noah Lolesio when he’s playing, Tom Wright,” he said.

“He’s a small player, but I tell you what – he comes off his wing really well, but he also knows when to stay on his wing and look for the ball. A very good player amongst a very talented Brumbies backline.”

In Horan’s eyes, the Brumbies’ gutsy win comes down to their improvement from the side that came within a whisker of Super Rugby AU glory last year.

“I think they’re a much better side this year than they were last year,” he said.

“Last year, they made a few mistakes: this year, everyone knows where to stand, they know exactly their roles and their responsibilities, and that comes down to the coaching staff.”

They needed to be every bit of that to take down the Force. Up next awaits the Reds in a top-of-the-table showdown: we can’t wait.

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