The Highlanders overturned a 12-point deficit to record a 26-19 bonus-point victory against the Waratahs in Dunedin on Saturday, reports JON CARDINELLI.
Nobody could have predicted such a result after watching the first 20 minutes. The Waratahs were dominant at the lineout and the scrum. Their power up front was complemented by skill and vision out wide, and they raced to a 12-0 lead before the end of the first quarter.
But the momentum started to shift in the hosts' favour in the 28th minute. Sekope Kepu was sent to the sin bin for a cynical infringement, and the Highlanders captialised right away through a try by lock Tom Franklin.
Malaki Fekitoa then made a crucial play when he tackled and stripped Israel Folau of possession in one fluid movement. The ball then flew to Waisake Naholo on the right wing, who ran 60m to score. The conversion by Lima Sopoaga took the Highlanders into the lead, and they continued to lead 14-12 at half-time.
The hosts struck another big blow after the break. Ben Smith ran through some poor defence to score, and Sopoaga's conversion ensured the Highlanders extended their lead to nine points.
But they weren't done yet. They continued to dominate the collisions, and once again, it was their defence that created a scoring opportunity.
Waratahs lock Will Skelton lost the ball in contact, and the hosts scooped it up and fed Smith on the counterattack. Smith's break took the hosts deep into Waratahs' territory, and the ball was eventually sent out to Patrick Osborne's wing. Jacques Potgieter missed a tackle on Osborne, allowing the big No 11 to score the bonus-point try.
The Waratahs scored their first points in the second half when Stephen Hoiles crossed for a try in the 79th minute. Bernard Foley slotted the conversion to ensure the visitors claimed a losing bonus point.
The Highlanders beat the Chiefs in Dunedin last week. They will take heart from this recent showing against the 2014 champions, and will fancy their chances against a resurgent Stormers side next week.
The Waratahs will need to revise their game plan. Their defence has been particularly poor this season, having conceded four tries on three occasions.
Highlanders – Tries: Tom Franklin, Waisake Naholo, Ben Smith, Patrick Osborne. Conversions: Lima Sopoaga (3).
Waratahs – Tries: Nick Phipps, Matt Carraro, Stephen Hoiles. Conversion: Bernard Foley (2).
Highlanders – 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Shaun Treeby, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu (c), 7 John Hardie, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Tom Franklin, 3 Ross Geldenhuys, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Josh Hohneck.
Subs: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Brendon Edmonds, 18 Pingi Tala'apitaga, 19 Mark Reddish, 20 TBC, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Marty Banks, 23 Jason Emery.
Waratahs – 15 Israel Folau, 14 Peter Betham, 13 Matt Carraro, 12 Kurtley Beale, 11 Rob Horne, 10 Bernard Foley, 9 Nick Phipps, 8 Wycliff Palu, 7 Michael Hooper, 6 Jacques Potgieter, 5 David Dennis (c), 4 Will Skelton, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 1 Benn Robinson.
Subs (from): Tolu Latu, Jeremy Tilse, Paddy Ryan, Sam Lousi, Mitchell Chapman, Stephen Hoiles, Brendan McKibbin, Jono Lance, Taqele Naiyaravoro/Ben Volavola.
Photo: Rob Jefferies/Getty Images