For half an hour this match threatened to not produce a point, but the most telling point was delivered in the 77th minute when the Highlanders’ superior skill and handling crushed Cheetahs spirits and condemned the home side to a second successive home Vodacom Super 14 defeat.
The Highlanders won 17-12, but in truth they should never have had to rely on a 77th minute try to seal victory. Incredibly, they had nothing to show on the half-an-hour, despite a 70 percent share of the possession and a 75 percent use of the Cheetahs side of the field. Fullback Ben Blair (twice) and Nick Evans fluffed relatively simple kicks and Blair will have to live down the embarrassment of being caught behind by Os du Randt a metre from the tryline.
In conditions more Dunedin than Bloemfontein, the Cheetahs just could not adapt, while the visitors showed a willingness to back themselves with the ball and actually try and put together a few phases. The enterprise was not pretty and initially it was also unproductive.
Highlanders captain Anton Oliver would have wondered who’d done what to the rugby gods when it was the Cheetahs who scored the only points to lead 3-0 when reduced to 14 men. Home captain Juan Smith had been sin-binned and still the visitors could not reflect their dominance on the scoreboard.
They deserved the halftime lead, courtesy of a Roy Kinikinilau try and Blair’s first successful kick of the evening, but a poor discipline in holding their defensive line and some dodgy interpretation at the breakdown gifted Meyer Bosman four kicks at goal. He succeeded with three of them to nudge the home team ahead 12-10 with 10 minutes to play. For the hosts it was an agonising last 10 because they never had enough ball to attack the lead. All they could do was throw soul, mind and heart at every tackle.
For six minutes it worked, but the superior skill of the visitors eventually beat off the challenge of the rain and the Cheetahs when replacement winger Richard Kahui completed a movement started 45 metres out. Blair added the two points to ensure only a converted try would win it for the Cheetahs.
They were never going to do it and despite finishing the game five metres from the Highlanders goalline, possession — and the four league points — belonged to the Highlanders.
Penalties: Meyer Bosman (36th min, 52nd min, 57th min, 68th min)
Tries: Roy Kinikinilau (39th min), Richard Kahui (76th min)
Conversions: Ben Blair (40th min, 77th min)
D/goals: Nick Evans (54th min)