Flanker Luke Watson and flyhalf Demetri Catrakilis starred as the Southern Kings put a three-week Super 15 nightmare firmly behind them by defeating the Otago Highlanders 34-27 on Saturday.
Injury-prone Watson was given back the captaincy of the southern hemisphere rookies and scored two pushover tries in the first half at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth.
Catrakilis became the first South African in seven years to top 100 points in his debut Super Rugby season as he reached 107 thanks to four conversions and two penalties from seven shots at goal.
Victory was especially sweet after the Kings conceded 18 tries in heavy losses against fellow South African sides the Northern Bulls and the Central Cheetahs, and the New South Wales Waratahs of Australia.
It was also their first success against New Zealand opposition after losses to title holders the Waikato Chiefs, record seven-time champions the Canterbury Crusaders and the Wellington Hurricanes.
The bonus-point victory over the bottom-placed Highlanders lifted them above Western Force of Australia to 13th in the combined standings with five games to play.
The Kings were also the only South African winners at the weekend, with the Cheetahs losing at home to the Hurricanes, while the Coastal Sharks and the Western Stormers failed away against Australian sides the Queensland Reds and the Waratahs respectively.
The Highlanders, who were visibly furious at some decisions of South African referee Jason Jaftha, pressed hard at the end to try and snatch a draw, but had to settle for two bonus points.
“We showed character and courage to bounce back after the performances of the past three weeks. We took some risks — we had no choice,” former Springbok Watson said.
“That was a pretty frustrating match for us as we conceded far too many penalties. It does not get any easier next weekend with a visit to the Bulls,” Highlanders hooker and skipper Andrew Hore said.
A disappointment for the men from New Zealand’s Dunedin was the place-kicking of flyhalf Colin Slade, who finished with only a 50 percent success rate from six shots at goal.
A seesaw first half ended with the Kings 20-17 ahead and they went 17 points clear through two converted tries, before relentless late Highlanders pressure yielded a couple of unconverted tries.
Watson (two), No. 8 Cornell du Preez and scrumhalf Shaun Venter scored the tries for the Kings, with the rest of the points coming from the right boot of former Western Province playmaker Catrakilis.
Slade, lock Brad Thorn, center Shaun Treeby and winger Hosea Gear were the tryscorers for the Highlanders, who had center Tamati Ellison sin-binned in the second half, while Slade slotted two conversions and a penalty.