A brilliant solo effort from Highlanders centre Malakai Fekitoa clinched a last-gasp 17-10 victory against the Bulls at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday.
The scores were deadlocked at 10-10 and there were five minutes remaining when the tourists poached Edgar Marutlulle’s lineout feed and immediately launched a counter-attack. The ball went to the backs where 100-kg All Blacks centre Fekitoa straightened up, fended off rookie Bulls winger Jade Stighling and then rounded Jamba Ulengo to score under the crossbar.
That moment of individual brilliance might not have separated the sides had an earlier try by Bulls prop Pierre Schoeman not be called back due to a dangerous cleanout perpetrated by RG Snyman which led to the Bulls lock being red-carded.
He was the second player to see Jaco van der Westhuizen’s red card as Highlanders winger Waisake Naholo suffered the same fate for making shoulder contact with Burger Odendaal’s jaw.
The win takes the Highlanders to within two points of the Hurricanes in the New Zealand conference.
The Bulls will be happy they were able to produce a much-improved performance from last week’s demolition at the hands of the Crusaders.
A thunderstorm just before the game, and constant rain throughout, made the conditions at Loftus Versfeld conducive to a tight game with lots of tactical kicking.
Tian Schoeman gave the home side an early 3-0 lead from the tee. This came after good patient build-up from the Bulls taking the ball through 10 phases before winning the penalty.
Richard Buckman’s chip was chased down by Matt Faddes who did well to retrieve the ball with his left-hand before cruising under the poles. Replacement fly-half Fletcher Smith converted to give the Highlanders a 7-0 lead.
Smith extended the lead to 10-3 with a penalty before Banks returned to the field of play.
Burger Odendaal’s clever grubber kick behind the Highlanders defence bamboozled Matt Faddes and Warrick Gelant pounced to dot down. Schoeman added the extras to level the score at 10-10.
Highlanders wing Waisake Naholo was given a red card by referee Jaco Van Heerden for a shoulder charge into the face of Odendaal.
The Bulls began to exert immense pressure on the away side and had a couple of five metre lineouts as well as a five metre scrum but failed to capitalise on their numerical advantage and the Highlanders somehow managed to escape. Perhaps the home side should have taken the points when they were on offer.
The Bulls thought they had scored when Pierre Schoeman bashed over in the 72nd minute after a good move but after the referee sent it upstairs, the TMO confirmed a shoulder charge from RG Snyman that saw the lock red-carded and the try disallowed. Both sides were now playing with fourteen men.
Malakai Fekitoa produced a moment of brilliance to separate the sides. He cut inside from the left wing and beat five players before coasting in under the posts. Marty Banks converted to give the Highlanders a 17-10 lead.
Con: T Schoeman
Pen: T Schoeman
Yellow card: P Schoeman
Tries: Faddes, Fekitoa
Cons: Smith, Banks
Red card: Naholo
Bulls: 15 Warrick Gelant, 14 Jade Stighling, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Burger Odendaal, 11 Jamba Ulengo, 10 Tian Schoeman, 9 Piet van Zyl, 8 Hanro Liebenberg (c), 7 Jannes Kirsten, 6 Ruan Steenkamp, 5 RG Snyman, 4 Jason Jenkins, 3 Trevor Nyakane, 2 Jaco Visagie, 1 Lizo Gqoboka
Replacements: 16 Edgar Marutlulle, 17 Pierre Schoeman, 18 Coenraad van Vuuren, 19 Lood de Jager, 20 Nick de Jager, 21 Rudy Paige, 22 Tony Jantjies, 23 Jan Serfontein
Highlanders: 15 Matt Faddes, 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Richard Buckman, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Marty Banks, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Gareth Evans, 7 Dillon Hunt, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Alex Ainley, 3 Siosuia Halanukonuka, 2 Ash Dixon (c), 1 Aki Seiuli
Replacements: 16 Greg Pleasants-Tate, 17 Daniel Lienert-Brown, 18 Siate Tokolahi, 19 Joe Wheeler, 20 Jackson Hemopo, 21 Kayne Hammington, 22 Fletcher Smith, 23 Teihorangi Walden
Referee: Jaco van Heerden
Assistant Referees: Egon Seconds, Cwengile Jadezweni
TMO: Johan Greeff