A depleted Highlanders side – at the mercry of controversial referee Paul Marks – defended against the odds to beat the Cheetahs and take a major step towards avoiding the wooden spoon in a gripping Super 14 match at Bloemfontein.
RugbyHeaven NZ reports that while being reduced to 13 men over the closing stages and forced into fielding a completely revamped backline over the last half-hour because of injury, the Highlanders clung on to win 31-28 and record their second victory of the season on the table on Saturday morning (NZ time).
Australian referee Marks was once again a talking point as he dished out yellow cards to Highlanders lock Tom Donnelly and replacement first five-eighth Blair Stewart within a minute of each other with 14 minutes remaining.
The Cheetahs had just narrowed the score to 31-21 at that stage and closed to within three points two minutes later.
However, the Highlanders regrouped and slowed play effectively enough to prevent the Cheetahs from scoring again, prevailing in an error-ridden match played in cold conditions.
The South Africans appeared in control when they opened up a 14-6 lead late in the first half but an uninterrupted 25-point burst from the southerners in 21 minutes turned the game on its head.
While they were outscored four tries to three, impressive Highlanders first five-eighth Mike Delany landed four penalties to ultimately make the difference. He kicked six from eight in a 16-point haul, with both misses hitting the post.
The Highlanders dominated the first 25 minutes at a near-empty Vodacom Park and should have led by more than 6-0 from two Delany penalties.
Halfback Toby Morland dropped the ball with the line at his mercy off a break from fullback Paul Williams.
The Cheetahs finally found some cohesion and hit the front through centre JW Jonker in the 28th minute after a sustained period of pressure.
No 8 Duane Vermeulen extended the lead when he crashed over off a short ball from halfback Noel Oelschig, arguably their best player.
However, the Highlanders went to halftime with their spirits revived after replacement back Aaron Bancroft was given the overlap and crossed to have his team trailing 11-14.
The game’s high point was a brilliant try just after the break to pacy Highlanders flanker Adam Thomson which reclaimed the lead. He intercepted a pass 80m out, threw a beautiful flick pass to Williams when tackled and then backed up to score.
Delany kicked two more penalties but injuries wer e taking their toll on the visitors, who lost midfield backs Johnny Leota and Brett Mather and winger Matt Saunders.
It forced replacement halfback Jimmy Cowan to come onto the right wing and the diminutive Delany to shift to second five-eighth.
The changes didn’t prevent a slick backline try, with Delany producing a deft grubber for Bancroft to collect and dive over for his second try.
While the Highlanders dominated the lineouts, the Cheetahs had the best of the scrum and driving play and virtually ignored their misfiring backs over the final quarter.
It started to pay dividends when reserve loose forward Hendro Scholtz crashed over before Donnelly was sinbinned for taking a man out in the air and Stewart for a high tackle.
The undermanned visitors ceded the try to Duncan but then dug in for a brave and deserved outcome.
The 31-28 victory puts them seven points clear of the bottom-placed Lions on the points table.
The Cheetahs managed to snatch two bonus points in their 10th loss of the season to help their cause near the foot of the table as well.
Highlanders captain Craig Newby was proud of his team’s pluck in the closing stages. “The way we finished was pure Southland and Otago rugby. Very pleasing,” he said.
“We knew the Cheetahs would be desperate for a win at home and we were desperate for a win away.
“We’re pretty evenly-match sides, we’re both young sides.”
Newby was happy to end their three-match South African tour on a winning note.
“First week we got a hiding from the Bulls and then we showed some improvement against the Stormers,” he said.
“It would have been nice to get this win in round two or three, I think we would have kicked on in the season.”
Man of the match Delany was relieved to hear the final whistle.
“We’ve had some close losses so to finally come out on top is unreal,” he said.
“The courage that we showed…the boys are just stoked.”
The Highlanders finish their season with matches at home to the Blues and away to the Crusaders.
Cheetahs skipper Juan Smith was exasperated after his team’s 10th loss. “We lost to ourselves tonight. We let them back into the game just before halftime and then after halftime we lost concentration. That was a crucial time.”
Cheetahs 28: JW Jonker, Duane Vermeulen, Conrad Scholtz, Rory Duncan tries; Conrad Barnard 2 con; Meyer Bosman 2 con.
Highlanders 31: Aaron Bancroft 2, Adam Thomson tries; Mike Delany 2 con, 4 pen.Tweet