Lima Sopoaga slotted an 82nd-minute penalty as the Highlanders clinched a thrilling 29-28 win over the Bulls in Pretoria on Saturday. CRAIG LEWIS reports.
The Bulls looked to have snatched a hard-fought victory in this engrossing encounter when Jesse Kriel scored a 75th-minute try, but the Highlanders worked their way back into the opposition half and won a crucial penalty.
From an acute angle some 40m out, Sopoaga then displayed all his class to slot the kick that sealed a remarkable victory for the Highlanders. Although Sopoaga will steal the headlines, it was a win built on the immense defence of the New Zealand side, who had to make 122 tackles to just 60.
For the Bulls, it’s a real missed opportunity after the Lions had lost to the Reds earlier in the day, with the Johannesburg-based side now still able to enjoy a 10-point lead at the summit of the South African conference.
In the opening quarter, the Bulls notably won three scrum penalties as they achieved early ascendancy at this key set piece, while they regularly turned to the lineout drive in an attempt to continue bullying the Highlanders up front.
Although the Landers’ maul defence stood up to the test early on, the Bulls did expose some space at the back through well-weighted kicks – in fact, putting boot to ball on 20 occasions in the first half alone.
This approach also effectively led to the home side’s opening try when Highlanders fullback Fletcher Smith was unable to collect a grubber that had been stabbed through at ankle level. As the ball spilled free, he then illegally restrained tryline-bound Warrick Gelant, which saw a penalty try awarded and Smith sent to the sin bin.
Moments later, Handré Pollard snapped up a loose pass and darted away for an opportunistic try, which sent the Bulls into a 14-7 lead on the half-hour mark, but the visitors would also have the final say of the first period when Sopoaga popped over a penalty.
The half-time stats showed that the Bulls had made as many as 198m to 85m, while completing 67 carries to 16 after enjoying a whopping 81% of possession. On that basis, the hosts would have wondered how they only boasted a four-point lead at the break, but it was also a stark reminder of the strengths that the Highlanders boast on defence.
Having absorbed so much pressure in the opening period, the Landers made the perfect start to the second half as Sopoaga slotted another penalty, before Fletcher Smith finished off an opportunistic try.
The Highlanders continued to build scoreboard pressure as Sopoaga then knocked over his third penalty, but the Bulls crucially struck back with a try to Jason Jenkins that cut the deficit to two points heading into the final quarter.
Momentum swung back and forth from there, and although Kriel looked to have won the game for the Bulls, it would be Sopoaga who emerged as the man of the moment with his superb final goal kick.
Bulls – Tries: Penalty try, Handré Pollard, Jason Jenkins, Jesse Kriel. Conversions: Pollard (3).
Highlanders – Tries: Aaron Smith, Fletcher Smith. Conversions: Lima Sopoaga (2). Penalties: Sopoaga (5).
Bulls – 15 Warrick Gelant, 14 Johnny Kötze, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Burger Odendaal (c), 11 Divan Rossouw, 10 Handré Pollard, 9 Ivan van Zyl, 8 Thembelani Bholi, 7 Jason Jenkins, 6 Marco van Staden, 5 Lood de Jager, 4 RG Snyman, 3 Trevor Nyakane, 2 Adriaan Strauss, 1 Lizo Gqoboka.
Subs: 16 Jaco Visagie, 17 Frans van Wyk, 18 Conraad van Vuuren, 19 Hendré Stassen, 20 Nic de Jager, 21 Embrose Papier, 22 Manie Libbok, 23 Travis Ismaiel.
Highlanders – 15 Fletcher Smith, 14 Ben Smith (c), 13 Rob Thompson, 12 Teihorangi Walden, 11 Tevita Li, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 Dillon Hunt, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Jackson Hemopo, 3 Tyrel Lomax, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown.
Subs: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Aki Seiuli, 18 Kalolo Tuiloma, 19 Alex Ainley, 20 Shannon Frizell, 21 Kayne Hammington, 22 Kayne Hammington, 23 Sio Tomkinson.
Photo: Sydney Seshibedi/Gallo Images