The Highlanders showed good character to secure a tense 18-17 victory over a gritty Waratahs team in their physical Super Rugby clash in Dunedin on Saturday.
The hard-fought victory sees the Highlanders remain unbeaten and at the top of the New Zealand conference, while the Waratahs will have to be content with a bonus point after a big effort away from home.
The visitors started the match well and looked in control as the Highlanders were repeatedly penalised at the breakdown. Waratahs captain Daniel Halangahu slotted two penalties to give his side an early 6-0 lead but the home side hit back when their young halfbacks combined well to get over for the first try of the game.
The intensity of the Highlanders in contact got them on the front foot and with the Waratahs backpedalling into their 22 scrumhalf Aaron Smith took a quick tap.
He spun it out wide and the ball was taken right up to the tryline before it was recycled and given to flyhalf Lima Sopoaga who attacked the gain line and got the pass away to Smith who was running a good support line and crashed over for the try which Sopoaga was somehow unable to convert.
The Highlanders were hitting the ball at pace and the breakdown with gusto, but they paid the price when Sopoaga had to leave the field after crashing into a Waratahs defender following another quick tap right in front of the poles.
The Waratahs managed to absorb the pressure that the hosts were piling on, and got into Highlanders territory through an opportunistic kick ahead by Sarel Pretorius who had pounced on a loose ball in midfield. Although the ball was lost and then cleared the Waratahs ran it back at them and won a penalty after the Highlanders went off their feet at the breakdown.
Halangahu's kick stretched the lead to 9-5 but the Highlanders hit back with a penalty of their own through Colin Slade who had moved to flyhalf in place of the injured Sopoaga and there was just one point in it at the break with the Waratahs 9-8 in front.
The Highlanders started the second half in promising fashion but that momentum was lost when a Slade clearance was charged down by Waratahs flank Pat McCutcheon who injured his ankle as he crashed over for the try which remained unconverted to keep the Waratahs' lead at 14-8.
The Highlanders stormed into the 22 in response and showed impressive ball control as they stretched the defence back and forth before firing it out to the left where hard-working flank John Hardie was waiting to cruise over for a deserved try which Slade converted from the touchline to give the home side the lead for the first time in the match.
Both sides were very abrasive in contact and the duel at ruck-time was vicious, but the Waratahs clearly had the upper hand in the scrums and it was this platform that they used to launch their next attack.
After getting the ball on the front foot and carrying it into the 22 they spun it out to the left where Adam Ashley-Cooper was dumped unceremoniously, but the Highlanders had infringed at the breakdown and Halangahu stepped up to take the lead back with another penalty.
With their confidence boosted the Waratahs launched a series of raids in the Highlanders 22 as the home side were forced to defend their line, but they showed good character to withstand the pressure and charge upfield to administer some of their own.
With both teams tiring visibly after some high intensity rugby which saw both sides enjoy possession in good field position the Waratahs were first to blink when they strayed offsides in front of the poles. Slade stepped up and knocked the kick over to give the Highlanders a slender 18-17 lead.
The game ended in frantic style with the Waratahs pushing hard with time up on the clock which was bang on time this week. The Highlanders eventually managed to turn the ball over but there was a comical scene when Jimmy Cowan's kick did not reach touch and had to be scrambled out in order to secure the tight victory.
Man of the match: Highlanders flank Adam Thomson continued his good form with another all-round performance which saw him taking plenty of line-out ball, hit some gaps and put in plenty of work in the tackle.
For the Highlanders:
Tries: Smith, Hardie
Pens: Slade 2
For the Waratahs:
Pens: Halangahu 4
Highlanders: 15 Colin Slade, 14 Kade Poki, 13 Tamati Ellison, 12 Phil Burleigh, 11 Hosea Gear, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu, 7 John Hardie, 6 Adam Thomson, 5 Nick Crosswell, 4 Josh Bekhuis, 3 Chris King, 2 Andrew Hore, 1 Jamie Mackintosh (captain).
Replacements: 16 Jason Rutledge, 17 Bronson Murray, 18 Culum Retallick, 19 James Haskell, 20 Jimmy Cowan, 21 Kurt Baker, 22, Buxton Popoali'i.
Waratahs: 15 Bernard Foley, 14 Tom Kingston, 13 Rob Horne, 12 Berrick Barnes, 11 Adam Ashley-Cooper, 10 Daniel Halangahu (captain), 9 Sarel Pretorius, 8 Tevita Metuisela, 7 Pat McCutcheon, 6 Dave Dennis, 5 Kane Douglas, 4 Dean Mumm, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 1 Benn Robinson.
Replacements: 16 John Ulugia, 17 Paddy Ryan, 18 Lopeti Timani, 19 Jono Jenkins, 20 Brendan McKibbin, 21 Tom Carter, 22 Brackin Karauria-Henry.
Referee: Bryce Lawrence (New Zealand)
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