The Highlanders beat the Bulls 27-20 in Dunedin, scoring three tries to two, writes MARK KEOHANE.
The Bulls dominated the opening 30 minutes, led 13-3 and played their most expansive rugby of the season. Then it all fell apart as the Highlanders scored 24 unanswered points.
The teams were tied 13-13 at half-time.
The Bulls scored an 80th-minute converted try to get a losing bonus point but one log point will be little consolation given the field position and possession advantage.
The Bulls won three scrum tightheads, enjoyed a 15-7 penalty advantage and had numerous opportunities to score from lineout drives close to the hosts tryline. But the lineout maul was not effective, which in part was down to excellent Highlanders defence and also because of Bulls' mistakes. The visitors made 14 handling errors to two in the second half alone.
Bjorn Basson, Jacques-Louis Potgieter, Jan Serfontein and Victor Matfield were the best of the Bulls, but the backline as a unit were easily neutralised.
The Bulls played expansive rugby in a first half in which Potgieter, at flyhalf, did not kick one ball. They tried to play with width but didn’t have the attacking skill or menace of the hosts, individually and as a back division.
The Highlanders were outstanding in defence, with captain Ben Smith influential. Smith was also good on attack but the real star was outside centre Malakai Fekitoa, who shredded the Bulls defence.
The Bulls, who have won one from eight matches against the Highlanders in New Zealand, lost captain Flip van der Merwe to injury.
Van der Merwe conceded handling errors had halted their momentum. He felt the Bulls had dominance and had played the game in the right areas but he gave credit to the Highlanders for forcing turnovers with aggressive defence.
The Bulls defence also proved sloppy in the second half and too many individuals fell off tackles.
The Highlanders, with determined and aggressive defence, deserved the win because their attack was also better.
Highlanders – Tries: Lima Sopoaga, Gareth Evans, Malakai Fekitoa. Conversions: Sopoaga (3). Penalties: Sopoaga (2).
Bulls – Tries: Bjorn Basson, Marcel van der Merwe. Conversions: Jacques-Louis Potgieter (2). Penalties: Potgieter (2).
Highlanders – 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Richard Buckman, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Shaun Treeby, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Elliot Dixon, 7 Shane Christie, 6 Gareth Evans, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Brad Thorn, 3 Chris King, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Kane Hames.
Subs: 16 Ged Robinson, 17 Craig Millar, 18 Ma'afu Fia, 19 Jarrad Hoeata, 20 John Hardie, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Trent Renata, 23 Nasi Manu.
Bulls – 15 Jürgen Visser, 14 Francois Hougaard, 13 JJ Engelbrecht, 12 Jan Serfontein, 11 Bjorn Basson, 10 Jacques-Louis Potgieter, 9 Piet van Zyl, 8 Grant Hattingh, 7 Jacques du Plessis, 6 Jono Ross, 5 Victor Matfield, 4 Flip van der Merwe (c), 3 Werner Kruger, 2 Callie Visagie, 1 Dean Greyling.
Subs: 16 Bongi Mbonambi, 17 Marcel van der Merwe, 18 Paul Willemse, 19 Jacques Engelbrecht, 20 Ulrich Beyers, 21 Handré Pollard, 22 William Small-Smith, 23 Morné Mellett.
LEATHERMAN SA PLAYER OF THE MATCH
Victor Matfield ruled the lineout with 12 takes and he produced an impressive all-round performance on defence and attack. He was active throughout the 80 minutes and looked as good as he did when he retired from international rugby in 2011.
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