This paper concerns the propagation of transient wave groups, focused at a point in time and space to produce locally large waves having a range of steepness. The experimental study was carried out in a wave flume at Dalian University of Technology. The numerical simulations were based on a nonlinear boundary integral equation solved by a higher-order boundary element method (HOBEM). Rather than simulate the whole experimental tank, local surface elevation measurements were used to drive the numerical solution from a point less than two wavelengths upstream of the focus position, leading to significant savings in computational time. Excellent agreement is achieved between the water surface elevations and the water particle kinematics measured in the experiments and those predicted numerically at wave group focus, even for near-breaking waves up to a steepness of kA = 0.405 for which even locally matched 2nd-order theory is inadequate. Results based on the linear and 2nd-order theory are also presented in the comparisons. When compared with the first- and 2nd-order solutions, the fully nonlinear wave-wave interactions produce a steeper wave envelope in which the central wave crest is higher and narrower, while the adjacent wave troughs are broader and less deep. (C) 2009 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.