The Otago Highlanders recovered from a shaky start to beat the Northern Bulls 27-20 in Dunedin, New Zealand, yesterday as the South African team’s poor form on the road continued.
The Bulls, coming off a loss to the Wellington Hurricanes last weekend, led 13-3 after half an hour, but then conceded three straight tries, effectively putting the game out of reach.
It ended three tries to two, taking the Bulls’ dismal record against the Highlanders on New Zealand soil to one win in nine attempts, with their only success back in 2007.
They had chances, but let themselves down with a string of basic handling errors, neutralizing their most potent attacking weapon, the lineout drive, which the Highlanders repelled eight consecutive times late in the game.
Highlanders skipper Ben Smith said he was pleased with the “ticker” his players showed to string together their first back-to-back wins of the season.
“We really defended our line well,” Smith said. “We’ve got a bit of belief, I’m really proud of the boys.”
The Bulls made a strong start and dominated possession, led by center Jan Serfontein with his powerful line breaks.
Prop Kruger Werner, celebrating his 100th Super Rugby match, was also instrumental as the Bulls built pressure through the forwards.
They had to settle for two penalties as the Highlanders’ defense held firm until midway through the first half, when Piet van Zyl’s quick chip from the base of a scrum set up winger Bjorn Basson for a try between the posts.
The Highlanders hit back against the run of play with a cleverly worked lineout where the ball was sent beyond the leaping players to Shaun Treeby.
His pass found Lima Sopoaga, who forced his way across the line, before converting his own try.
Sopoaga then potted a penalty to make it 13-13 at halftime.
The Highlanders maintained their momentum after the break when Malakai Fekitoa sidestepped three defenders and offloaded to Gareth Evans for a five-pointer.
Fekitoa, 21, an off-season signing from the Auckland Blues, left the Bulls defense flat-footed again 10 minutes later to score his own try after a break from Sopoaga set him up, taking the lead to 27-13.
The Bulls were relentless in attack during the final stages, but were frustrated by a combination of courageous Highlanders defense and their own mistakes.
They scored a consolation try, salvaging a bonus point in the process, in the last minute when their lineout drive finally clicked and Marcel van der Merwe crossed the line.