All Black Malakai Fekitoa scored a try four minutes from full time to give his Highlanders team a 17-10 win over the Vodacom Bulls in their Vodacom Super Rugby match at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday, reports SuperSport.com.
Fekitoa broke through in a solo effort to end a 10-all deadlock in a game played in driving rain and bitter cold and which contributed two red cards to see the sides reduced to 14 men.
Minutes before Bulls reserve Coenraad van Vuuren scored what looked like the winning try, only to have it overturned by a red card to lock RG Snyman for a shoulder charge into a ruck that felled Greg Pleasants-Tate in the process.
While the game will never be remembered as a classic, there was at least some hope for the Bulls fans following their walloping at the hands of the Crusaders last weekend as they put up a much better performance after a week of soul-searching in the Loftus corridors.
The weather was mostly to blame as it equalised conditions for the two sides and put them into an arm-wrestle for domination in such a way that there never was going to be a lot of expansive rugby.
As such, the first half was reduced to a kicking contest – with the Bulls enjoying more possession and territory but inexplicably not wanting to use it, trying to keep the Highlanders pinned in their own territory.
No less than 71 kicks rained down on the few that braved the weather to turn up at Loftus Versfeld in the first half alone, with the Highlanders winning the kicking battle on the night with more measured and direct punts.
One of those kicks led to the only try of the first half when a chip over the defence landed in the middle of four players, and Matt Faddes swooped in to grab it before a Bulls player could even come close, resulting in one of the softest tries ever scored at Loftus.
But in the second half the attitude and tactics changed and a more direct and optimistic Bulls pack barged forward to look more dangerous, with Jannes Kirsten and Lizo Gqoboka looking strong in the close exchanges and Ruan Steenkamp making a big impression in the loose for the side.
But as much as they were better in the second half, the Bulls were certainly not good enough. And for all the soul-searching, the team managed to gain respect, but not the victory they needed in the process.
That pressure will continue on the coaching team is certain, but at least there was a measure of backbone in the performance, which was not the case a week earlier against the Crusaders.
And on a night where they could have won, the red card to Snyman cost them more than just the game. It will mean that one of their star performers will most likely sit out a number of games.
Thus, the cloud that has settled over Loftus certainly won’t be lifted anytime soon.
The second half saw Warrick Gelant bring the Bulls level – thanks to an ambitious grubber from Burger Odendaal – that bobbled its way close to the tryline where Faddes missed it completely and allowed the Bulls fullback to pounce on the loose ball and score.
The Highlanders were then reduced to 14 men when Waisake Naholo rather recklessly shouldered Odendaal in the 64th minute, a careless action that gave the referee no choice but to brandish a red card.
The Bulls looked to pounce and reserve Van Vuuren started and finished a move that saw them score under the posts. But the Television Match Official was called into play, and Snyman’s indiscretion hit home hard, reducing the Bulls to 14 men when the red card was flashed.
It was a moment of madness, a moment that cost the side dearly when they needed cool heads to prevail and a moment that will be infuriating for the coaching staff after all the hard work was done.
With both teams down to 14, the Highlanders stepped up to see Fekitoa snap up the opportunity and space provided by a scrambling backline and score the try that mattered.
The win means that in 14 contests with New Zealand sides, South African teams have come second in 13 of them. It means that the Bulls, while brave and showing some resolve, still let themselves down both in terms of discipline and execution.
But their fans will be happy that staring down the barrel it wasn’t as bad as against the Crusaders.
It doesn’t make it easier to swallow, but with the Lions at Ellis Park waiting next weekend it at least gives them a little hope.
Vodacom Bulls – try: Warrick Gelant. Conversion: Tian Schoeman. Penalty – Tian Schoeman
Highlanders – tries: Matt Faddes, Malakai Fekitoa. Conversions: Marty Banks (2). Penalty: Fletcher Smith