Highlanders devastated by Lions in Dunedin
The Lions stole a last-minute win at Carisbrook to put the Highlanders' play-off hopes in jeopardy.
Lock Wikus van Heerden capped of a superb performance with a game-winning try in the 80th minute as the visitors won 26-22 when it seemed as though the Highlanders would close the game out.
After leading 16-9 at halftime, the Highlanders were unable to put away a determined Lions team which defended better than a team running last in the competition.
With plenty of controversy swirling around Highlanders rugby over a jersey change to be revealed next week, the Highlanders failed to stamp any dominance on the game.
Adam Thomson was ruled out before kick-off with his rib injury ruling out a return for what would have been his 50th game for the franchise.
Nick Crosswell took his place on the side of the scrum with Southland’s No 8 Elliot Dixon to mark his comeback from a dislocated elbow.
A crowd of 5217 braved the chilly conditions in the Highlanders' penultimate game at Carisbrook before the shift to the new waterfront stadium.
The rust from the bye week was prevalent early, as they trailed 6-3 after Lima Sopoaga had kicked the opening penalty.
Lacking their trademark intensity at the breakdown and the likes of Jimmy Cowan making some uncharacteristic errors, the Highlanders looked very much a team needing to rediscover the momentum they had created before the break.
The Highlanders scored the first try of the game, a late cut from Shaun Treeby off Sopoaga exposing some lazy defence from the Lions loose forwards.
A third penalty from Elton Jantjies closed the gap to 10-9 before the Highlanders blew a chance when Jarrad Hoeata knocked on as the home team put pressure on the Lions line.
After Sopoaga had landed two more penalties to give the Highlanders a 16-9 lead, the Lions were guilty of turning down a gift after a midfield break by Doppies La Grange was followed up by Butch James throwing what should have been the last pass out over the sideline.
The best moment of the first half was a searing break from Ben Smith which started near his 22m and ended deep in Lions territory.
After Sopoaga missed a routine penalty 46 minutes in, the Lions made the home team pay four minutes later when big, bearded bruiser Josh Strauss took a quick tap metres out from the Highlanders line and swivelled his way to a try which Jantjies converted to level the scores at 16-all.
With 20 minutes to go and the teams locked at 19-all, replacement Highlanders flanker John Hardie produced a great run to within 5m of the line, but there was an ugly moment when Lions prop JC Janse Van Rensburg twisted the neck of Siale Piutau at the ruck and Piutau reacted with a punch which saw both forward packs come together for a frank discussion.
A penalty from Sopoaga with 13 minutes to go appeared to give the Highlanders the game-winning advantage but the Lions attacked in the final five minutes and were rewarded when van Heerden drove his way over.
The Highlanders now have the Force at home, with away games to the Waratahs and Blues to finish the season, meaning the challenge of getting to the play-offs just got bigger.
Highlanders 22 (Ben Smith try; Lima Sopoaga 5 pen, con) HT: 16-9
Lions 26 (Josh Strauss, Wikus van Heerden tries; Elton Jantjies 4 pen, 2 con)
The Southland Times