The Highlanders scored three tries in the final five minutes to claim a 45-41 win against the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein on Friday. JON CARDINELLI reports.
How did the Cheetahs let this one slip? While they've made a habit of blowing significant leads this season, no one would have expected them to concede three converted tries in the dying moments of the game.
Call it what it is: a choke. The Cheetahs led 15-10 at half-time, and 41-24 on the hour. They had every opportunity to close this game out and secure a rare win against New Zealand opposition.
The Highlanders should be elated with the second-half performance, as well as the result. After putting in a lacklustre display at the collisions and breakdowns in the first stanza, they still managed to come out on top.
The visitors weren't helped by the officials. Fullback Matt Faddes received a yellow card for what appeared to be an innocuous tackle in the 35th minute. The Highlanders' second sanction was more clear-cut, though, as Siate Tokolahi was sin-binned for a dangerous tackle on Henco Venter.
The Cheetahs capitalised on the two-man advantage, scoring through Torsten Jaarsveld. Fred Zeilinga's conversion stretched the hosts' lead to 22-10.
The Highlanders hit back with tries by Rob Thompson and Waisake Naholo. At that point, it seemed as if the Cheetahs defence was tiring, and another second-half implosion looked to be on the cards.
The Cheetahs maintained their effort at the gainline, and found some space in the wider channels. Oupa Mohoje finished a great attacking movement in the left-hand corner, while Tian Meyer scored his second try of the evening when he chased a chip kick by Raymond Rhule.
Then Uzair Cassiem made a searing break to free up Sergeal Petersen. When Ox Nche scored and Zeilinga added the extras, the Cheetahs appeared to have the result, as well as the bonus point secured.
But the Highlanders never stopped coming. Cassiem was yellow-carded in the 72nd minute, and this allowed the Highlanders to finish the game with a one-man advantage. They scored three tries in the dying moments, with Naholo claiming the winning score to complete a brace.
Cheetahs – Tries: Tian Meyer (2), Sergeal Petersen, Torsten van Jaarsveld, Raymond Rhule, Ox Nche. Conversions: Fred Zeilinga (4). Penalty: Zeilinga.
Highlanders – Tries: Marty Banks, Rob Thompson, Waisake Naholo (2), Tevita Li, Matt Faddes. Conversions: Banks (6). Penalty: Banks.
Cheetahs – 15 Clayton Blommetjies, 14 Sergeal Petersen, 13 Francois Venter (c), 12 William Small-Smith, 11 Raymond Rhule, 10 Fred Zeilinga, 9 Tian Meyer, 8 Henco Venter, 7 Oupa Mohoje, 6 Paul Schoeman, 5 Francois Uys, 4 Carl Wegner, 3 Johan Coetzee, 2 Torsten van Jaarsveld, 1 Ox Nche.
Subs: 16 Elandre Huggett,17 Charles Marais, 18 Tom Botha, 19 Armandt Koster, 20 Uzair Cassiem, 21 Niell Jordaan, 22 Shaun Venter, 23 Niel Marais.
Highlanders – 15 Matt Faddes, 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Rob Thompson, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Marty Banks, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Luke Whitelock (c), 7 Dillon Hunt, 6 Liam Squire, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Joe Wheeler, 3 Siosuia Halanukonuka, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown.
Subs: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Aki Seiuli, 18 Siate Tokolahi, 19 Elliot Dixon, 20 Gareth Evans, 21 Kayne Hammington, 22 Fletcher Smith, 23 Richard Buckman
Photo: Johan Pretorius/Gallo Images