The Highlanders pulled off a breathtaking comeback with three converted tries in the final five minutes to overcome a 41-24 deficit and beat the Cheetahs 45-41 in Super Rugby on Friday.
Waisake Naholo scored the game-clinching try as the final hooter sounded to end a stirring, seesaw match that saw the teams produce 12 tries — six apiece — and put on 61 points in the second half.
The Dunedin-based Highlanders looked out of it twice in Bloemfontein, at 22-10 down early in the second half and then 17 points behind in the dying minutes.
Left wing Tevita Li began the final comeback in the 75th minute, fullback Matt Faddes finished off a long-range break in the 77th and right wing Naholo was free on an overlap to complete a hectic last-gasp attack from the Highlanders for his second try of the night.
“We were definitely put under the pump there, but the guys’ belief in the last five minutes, we had nothing to lose,” Highlanders captain Luke Whitelock said. “We just had to go out and pull the trigger.”
In New Zealand, center Charlie Ngatai scored a try to mark his return to Super Rugby after a 364-day battle with concussion as the Hamilton-based Chiefs beat the Queensland Reds 46-17 yesterday to temporarily top the New Zealand conference.
One-Test All Black Ngatai sustained a concussion in a match against the Highlanders in May last year and has faced a difficult recuperation as symptoms persisted, interrupting his budding international career.
He took the field for his first match since that injury and made an impact with a 35th-minute try that helped the Chiefs to a 20-12 lead at halftime and eventually to a six-tries-to-three, bonus-point win.
The lead changed hands three times in the first half, but Ngatai’s try marked the start of a period of Chiefs’ superiority that was driven home with tries in the first four minutes of the second half to lock Dominic Bird and veteran flyhalf Stephen Donald.
When the 33-year-old Donald, penalty-goal hero of New Zealand’s 2011 World Cup final win over France, sprinted into a wide gap in the Reds’ defense to score the Chiefs’ fourth try, the lead was 32-12 and it was certain the record of New Zealand teams against Australia-based rivals this season would increase to 16-0.
The Auckland Blues later made it 17-0 with a 40-33 win over the NSW Waratahs in Australia.
“We’re smiling tonight, that’s for sure,” Chiefs captain Sam Cane said. “We’ve been frustrated the last few weeks with the way we’ve been going and we knew that on paper the Reds are a very good outfit.”
Earlier, the Johannesburg-based Lions beat the Melbourne Rebels 47-10 for a club-record seventh straight win and their largest-ever win over an Australia-based opponent.
The Lions scored seven tries to one — including a penalty try — to improve their record to 9-1 and to stay in touch with the unbeaten Canterbury Crusaders, who were to play the Bulls in South Africa after press time last night.
Additional reporting by staff writer
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