Landers edge Dunedin epic

RYAN VREDE reports on a compelling 16-11 victory for the Highlanders over the Bulls.

For a brief period in the dying minutes you thought the Bulls would do another great escape, like they did in Sydney last week. But on the balance of play they didn’t deserve the win. There are smiles in the home changeroom and undoubtedly thousands of kilometres away in Cape Town from Stormers players, who’ve been handed a massive incentive for victory.

There was nothing pretty about this match. It was brutal and relentless in an old-school sense. There was no doubting the hunger for victory and even though it was played with very little structure for large periods, it had a magnetic appeal.

Finesse wasn’t a feature of either side’s first half effort. That the Highlanders would try and run the Bulls off their feet was predictable. They came into this contest having kicked less than any team in the tournament. It isn’t a tactic unfamiliar to the Bulls, whose bulky tight forwards have for some time been seen as a liability against opposition who play expansively.

But there was little power, purpose, patience or synergy about the Highlanders’ attack and the Bulls had clearly braced themselves for an intense gainline fight, one they won through accurate and dominant hits, while their discipline amplified that challenge. This stifled the Highlanders’ momentum and they looked largely rudderless and impotent when the ball was shovelled to their back division.

The hosts’ cause was further undermined by the Bulls’ excellent lineout contest – hooker Jason Rutledge reduced to looking like a tanked up darts player. Robbed of this attacking platform the Highlanders had only their scrum to rely on as a solid attacking launch.

Certainly they enjoyed the bulk of possession, but they did nothing to inspire and looked devoid of the ability to explore alternative avenues of attack.

It therefore appeared to be a question of how long the Bulls’ defensive resistance could sustain and how often they could force penalties on the occasions they managed to drive into the Highlanders’ territory. They had done little on attack to suggest they could score tries if needed, their cleaners useless in denying the Highlanders’ breakdown scrappers opportunities at slowing or stealing their ball. Their kicking game was also poor, Francois Hougaard’s struggles central to their mediocrity in this regard. It is the weakest part of his game and why the Bulls persist in asking him to kick with the regularity he does is perplexing.

However, the Bulls lead 6-3 at half-time thanks to two Morne Steyn penalties (he’d also missed two), but Mike Delany levelled the score shortly after the restart.

The Highlanders’ primary strike runner were gaining in prominence and punch as the match progressed, and going into the final quarter the Bulls’ task was complicated when they lost Dean Greyling to the sin bin for a breakdown offence. The Highlanders launched wave after wave of attacks and finally eroded the Bulls’ resolve through Jarrad Hoeata. Delany banked the extras then added a penalty for a 10-point lead.

With 10 minutes remaining the Bulls were required to improve their attacking play dramatically. They responded well, playing through phases and crafting a chance for Greyling, who knocked on in the attempt to score. But Willie Wepener crossed in the next passage of play, although Steyn missed the most critical of his goal kicks.

The Bulls upped the ante in search of the decisive score they required. Pierre Spies surrendered possession in a surge for the tryline. They had one more opportunity at the death, but their ambition crumbled when the Highlanders effected a breakdown turnover, their eighth of the evening.

The Highlanders get their play-off charge back on track, while the Bulls could now be overtaken at the top of the South African conference if the Stormers win this evening. With the Chiefs waiting next weekend, what promised to be a outstanding tour could end up being a decidedly mediocre one. In the context of their title challenge, the importance of winning in Hamilton cannot be overstated.