Bulls come up short in Dunedin
The Highlanders survived a ferocious late onslaught by the Vodacom Bulls to down the South Africans 16-11 at the Forsyth-Barr Stadium in Dunedin on Saturday.
It was a converted try by lock Jarrad Hoeata in the 64th minute that proved to be the difference on the scoreboard, but it was the Bulls' lack of urgency and variety on attack in the first 70 minutes of the match that decided the result.
It started off very promising for the visitors as they took control of the match in the first half. Using their kick-chase game and stealing line-outs all over the park, they set up camp inside the Highlanders’ half and seemed for all the world to have their famous slow poison taking effect.
They would perhaps have been a little disappointed to have only two Morne Steyn penalties to show for their efforts, and the 6-3 halftime lead was hardly a reflection of the match to that point. It was, however, an ominous sign of things to come.
It must have been some halftime show in the Highlanders dressing room, because a line-out that lost six throw-ins so far came back from the break functioning perfectly. And it made the world of difference.
All of a sudden the Bulls’ kicking game could no longer guarantee territorial advantage, and as the possession stats evened out it was the home-side starting to dictate play. The visitors, for their part, inexplicably continued to put boot to ball, showing no ambition whatsoever when they had it in hand.
With no ball and stuck on the wrong side of halfway, Pierre Spies and his men found themselves under more and more pressure, and it came to a head in the 56th minute when prop Dean Greyling was yellow-carded -- perhaps somewhat harshly -- for failing to roll away from the bottom of a ruck.
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The Highlanders took full advantage. In the next 12 minutes they scored ten points to take a 16-6 lead with just over 10 minutes left on the clock.
It was now or never for the team that were log-leaders coming into the weekend, and just like they did in Sydney a week ago, they managed to whip up a pink frenzy. Gone was the kicking game and in came the big ball-carriers, and in no time they were on the tryline. Greyling capped a forgettable night when he dropped a ball over the chalk, but it hardly mattered as hooker Willie Wepener crashed over seconds later.
Their second miracle in eight days seemed to be right on track when they kicked a penalty to the corner, won the line-out and got their formidable maul moving forward. But you can only push your luck so far.
With less than two minutes on the clock, captain Spies broke off the back of the maul and got himself isolated when his solo effort came to nought; his holding on to the ball resulting in a penalty that allowed the Highlanders to stop the pink tide for good.
It is a result that will leave the Bulls scratching their heads. If they have an attacking game capable of ripping the best defences in the competition apart, why do they insist on keeping it under wraps until the dying minutes of a match?
The result has also left open the door for the Stormers, who can re-claim the top-of-the-log spot when they meet the Waratahs at Newlands later this afternoon.
The Bulls finish their tour with trip to the Chiefs next week, a match that has the potential to produce loads of fireworks if the men from Pretoria take the lessons of today’s match to heart.
Highlanders – Try: Jarrad Hoeata. Conversion: Mike Delany. Penalties: Delany (3).
Vodacom Bulls – Try: Willie Wepener. Penalties: Morne Steyn (2).