It was a game that created Super rugby history but it left the Bulls with a reminder that even the smallest dog can have sharp teeth.
The Sunday Times reports that the Highlanders celebrated their bold decision to play outside their region with a clinical demolition of the previously unbeaten Bulls.
They scored five tries in their most inspired performance in years, while the Bulls managed two but at times looked tired a week after a torrid encounter with the Hurricanes.
The Highlanders were aggressive at the breakdown — they conceded a flurry of infringements and possibly should have had players sinbinned — and in the scrums.
That seemed to rock the Bulls, so used to dominating teams up front.
“The Highlanders are quite a physical team and they put us under real pressure at the breakdown,” said Bulls captain Fourie du Preez.
“It was a really tough night for us. We played against the wind in the first half and we ended up having to chase a lot of points.”
If the game wasn’t quite over at halftime, it was at least looking likely the Highlanders would build on their 21-5 lead.
That hunch proved correct as flyhalf Mathew Berquist scored a try, added a conversion and then kicked a penalty to stretch the lead.
Morne Steyn finally helped the Bulls perk up with a well-worked try but there was to be no miracle comeback. Fullback Israel Dagg iced the Highlanders win with a 77th-minute try.
“The Bulls are big and can boss you round the field, but my boys were up for that challenge and really got stuck in,” said Highlanders captain Jimmy Cowan.
“It’s a big boost for us because we feel we’ve been performing quite well.”
The Highlanders have struggled to attract even moderate-sized crowds to Carisbrook so the franchise struck a deal with Palmerston North, about 700km away and part of the Hurricanes region.
Scrumhalf Du Preez created the one moment of excitement for the Bulls in the first half when he saw the Highlanders were reacting slowly and he took a quick tap from a penalty.
A quick dart opened up a straight run to the line for winger Gerhard van der Heever to score his first Super 14 try.
But the rest of the half was an exercise in frustration for the men from Pretoria, who dominated territory and had a good portion of possession but could not use it as effectively as the Highlanders.
For a long time, the High- landers have been a side full of commitment but sorely lacking in attacking class.
Yet here they were, playing a home game away from home, running with panache and passing with grace.
The Bulls looked strangely shaken for an experienced team that led the Super 14 table with an unbeaten record.
There were gaps on the flanks, which the Highlanders exploited, and some poor communication further infield.
The Bulls were powerless to halt the momentum created by the Highlanders that led to tries for Daniel Bowden and Cowan in the second part of the first half.
Upsets are nothing new for the Highlanders — it was less than a year ago that they shocked the Crusaders in Christchurch to end a poor season on a surprising high note.
But the Bulls were in unfamiliar territory yesterday. They hadn’t been beaten by the Highlanders since 2005. And they hadn’t tasted defeat this season.
It probably won’t cause too much concern in Bulls country but they will need to flush this loss out of their system before playing the Crusaders in Christchurch next week.
Highlanders 36 — Tries: Jason Shoemark, Daniel Bowden, Jimmy Cowan, Mathew Berquist, Israel Dagg. Conversions: Berquist (4). Penalty: Berquist.
Bulls 12 — Tries: Gerhard van der Heever, Morne Steyn. Conversion: Steyn.Tweet