The Brumbies were already without David Pocock (calf), Allan Alaalatoa (wrist) and Toni Pulu (cheekbone). But their absence gave McKellar a chance to throw some young guns into the mix and they didn’t disappoint.
Gungahlin juniors Mack Hansen and Tom Ross made their debut together, scrumhalf Ryan Lonergan almost scored the match-sealing try and Jordan Jackson-Hope added plenty of spark when he was injected.
It will give McKellar and the Brumbies confidence they can turn their season around regardless of who’s injured after regaining momentum with a tight win against the Waratahs.
“I was really pleased. It wasn’t pretty at times but we stuck at it and stuck at it,” McKellar said.
“I thought we were outstanding sticking with what works well with us under pressure, and that comes off the back of our defence. Grinding it out with some sore bodies.”
The six-point win erases the doubt about the Brumbies winning close games and keeps them in touch with the teams above them with two wins and three losses so far this year.
Folau Faingaa scored a double and the Brumbies won a penalty try from a rolling maul to continue their recent dominance against NSW, winning five of the past six matches between the teams.
Lonergan almost scored the winner after Lachlan McCaffrey made a break from a scrum and Hansen kicked the ball into the in-goal area, but the television match official ruled he dropped the ball.
In the end it didn’t matter because the Brumbies walked away as winners, avoiding a hat-trick of losses and what could have been a crippling blow for their year.
Brumbies skipper Christian Lealiifano said: “It was a really tough contest, an awesome game of footy. We had momentum but the ‘Tahs were fantastic.
“A lot of the defence was attitude, we needed a reaction after last week and I think we did that. I thought the way we turned up and stayed in the grind was really good.”
Waratahs captain Michael Hooper lamented missed opportunities for his side, with the Waratahs now two wins from four games.
“They were good in defence but a lot of passes went to ground behind the man,” Hooper said.
“I thought the Brumbies did a really good job on the defensive breakdown out wide. Credit to them and their work rate.
“I don’t think I’ve come down here and had an easy game, it’s a great rivalry for Australian rugby. It wasn’t enough in the end.”
The Waratahs opened the scoring in unconventional style when Bernard Foley’s penalty attempt cannoned off the post and landed in Hooper’s arms.
Hooper somehow found a way to score from close range, spinning out of three flimsy tackles and diving across the line to land the first blow.
But the Brumbies hit back when they finally got their hands on the ball, scoring from their first opportunity inside the attacking zone when a flying Faingaa was unstoppable.
It kickstarted a period of dominance for the Brumbies, helping them destroy the Waratahs’ with rolling mauls which led to Faingaa getting his second of the game.
Things got tougher for the Waratahs when Sekope Kepu was sent to the sin bin after an illegal cleanout on McCaffrey.
The Brumbies had a chance to blow the game open in injury time when a loose Waratahs pass gave Tevita Kuridrani a chance to toe the ball towards the try line.
The race went for 55 metres and Kuridrani was first to the ball, but his own players swamped him short of the line and Adam Ashley-Cooper swooped to force a brilliant turnover to stop a Brumbies try.
The Brumbies failed to make the Waratahs pay in Kepu’s absence and the Waratahs cut the margin to two when Israel Folau threw a beautiful flick pass to set up Alex Newsome.
The Brumbies were hit with another double injury blow, losing Sio and Valetini, but they rallied to win a penalty try when the Waratahs illegally defended another rolling maul.
Foley finally hit his first shot at goal of the game to cut the margin to six points with 17 minutes left in the contest. The Waratahs turned up the pressure in the closing stages, but the Brumbies managed to hold on for victory.
AT A GLANCE
ACT BRUMBIES 19 (Folau Faingaa 2, penalty try tries; Christian Lealiifano conversion) bt NSW WARATAHS 13 (Michael Hooper, Alex Newsome tries; Bernard Foley penalty) at Canberra Stadium on Friday night. Referee: Glen Jackson. Crowd: 12,122.
Chris Dutton is the sports editor at The Canberra Times.