Highlanders show brawn to down the Bulls

YOU BEAUTY: Lima Sopoaga crashes over the score for the Highlanders.
YOU BEAUTY: Lima Sopoaga crashes over the score for the Highlanders.

It would be a stretch to suggest that winning has become a habit for the Highlanders.

But a fourth victory tonight by 27-20 over the Bulls - more than a star-studded Highlanders squad managed all last season - left us with plenty to like about the home team.

The Highlanders soaked up a huge amount of pressure in the early stages of the game, not panicking when they fell 10 points down, and took their opportunities when they eventually came.

Amongst it all was some super option taking from players starting to find their feet in Super Rugby.

When it was time to pop the pass, the Highlanders generally did. When it was time to go to ground, they did that too and when they needed a break, they got one through the likes of Patrick Osborne and Richard Buckman.

Malakai Fekitoa has been good all season, but he was special in this game in front of a 10,090-strong crowd.

Elliot Dixon, a nearly man through much of his Super Rugby career, had one of his best performances in a Highlanders jersey, including a ruck turnover in the first half which helped turn the tide his team's way.

And running the cutter from the back was Ben Smith.

He had gigantic South Africans running at him in waves in the first half hour but never shirked, instilling confidence in his team.

It was too much for a Bulls team who were guilty of spilling a lot of ball when they looked promising, especially in the second half.

The Bulls scored first after clinically dismantling the Highlanders' defence from a scrum 40m out. Halfback Piet van Zyl ran a seemingly pointless angle down the blindside before unleashing a kick with a touch of genius for winger Bjorn Basson to collect and score.

The Highlanders struck back courtesy of Lima Sopoaga, who showed good strength to reach over after a neat set move which saw Shaun Treeby come in from the midfield to collect a lineout overthrow and then cut against the grain.

Treeby's final pass looked dodgy, but had taken a Bulls hand during the transfer, and the try was good reward for a team which had taken such a pounding during the opening exchanges.

When Sopoaga landed his second penalty, the Highlanders had somehow managed to level the scores at 13-all and some desperate defence just before halftime meant they were able to keep it that way going into the break.

It seemed a tough call for the Bulls, who had dominated the opening quarter with a bit of rugby rope-a-dope, running the ball sharply rather than resorting to the kick and maul game they can use so effectively.

The visitors were forcing mistakes out of the Highlanders at scrum time, including an old school hook against the head, and sending in big ball runners like Jan Serfontein and the guided missile Jacques du Plessis.

The Bulls returned to type after the break, a maul then some kicking, but it was the Highlanders who claimed the initiative when Osborne broke through the defence and started an attack which finished with Fekitoa sending flanker Gareth Evans in for a try which gave the home team the lead for the first time in the game.

The Highlanders needed to be the next team to score, and they were with Fekitoa smashing his way through after a movement started by Osborne and continued by Joe Wheeler.

The Highlanders haven't been great in the back end of games so far this season, but their defence in the final 10 minutes was outstanding and they held out for a good win.

Highlanders 27 (Lima Sopoaga, Gareth Evans, Malakai Fekitoa tries; Sopoaga 2 pen, 3 con) Bulls 20 (Bjorn Basson, Marcel van der Merwe tries; Jacques-Louis Potgieter 2 pen, 2 con). HT: 13-13

Fairfax Media