Brave Lions stun Highlanders
Dunedin - Wikus van Heerden scored a try a minute from fulltime to give South Africa's Lions a 26-22 win over the Highlanders in their Vodacom Super Rugby match on Saturday.
Former Springbok flank van Heerden, swathed in bandages and streaming blood from a head wound, drove through the Highlanders' defence in the 79th minute to give the Johannesburg-based Lions their third win of the season and severely damage the Highlanders' playoff hopes.
Highlanders flyhalf Lima Sopoaga had kicked his team to the brink of victory, landing a conversion and five penalties for 17 points, but he missed touch from a late penalty, allowing the Lions to mount the raid from which the winning try was scored.
Sopoaga had fought a kicking duel with his young flyhalf rival Elton Jantjies throughout the match and seemed to have gained the upper hand when his fifth penalty in the 67th minute gave the Highlanders a 22-19 lead.
Jantjies kept a spotless record, kicking two conversions and four penalties for 16 points.
The Highlanders started the match in sixth place on the championship table, looking for their ninth win from 13 games which would've cement their place among the top-six teams which will contest the playoffs in four weeks.
Instead, they fell to a fifth defeat which may result in them tumbling out of the top six and could harm their playoff chances. The Highlanders have matches remaining against the Western Force, Waratahs and Blues.
The Lions played with enormous spirit to post the second win of their four-match tour of Australia and New Zealand, which concludes when they play the Hurricanes next weekend. They trailed for large parts of the game, were behind 16-9 at half-time and by three points with a minute remaining but they showed patience and resilience to claim a last-gasp win.
"I've played for the Lions for a long time and I can't remember us winning in New Zealand ever so it's a big occasion for us," Lions captain Doppies La Grange said.
"Some hard work has paid off. The guys showed a lot of attitude and played with heart. It's an awesome feeling. We gave away some silly penalties but against the Highlanders it's always a physical battle and you have to work hard to come out with a win."
La Grange said the hard-working van Heerden and the composed, young Jantjies had been inspirational figures.
"Wikus is always a stalwart, he always plays with heart and again Elton Jantjies what an exciting youngster. He's a name to watch. Winning here means a lot but obviously we have to be consistent and we have to work hard on our consistency to build on this win."
The Highlanders should have clinched the match well before the final minute when Van Heerden's try became decisive. They had many opportunities but their play lost some of its usual coordination and authority.
New Zealand referee Jonathan White fired penalties randomly at breakdowns, mostly against the Lions, and his rulings led to frustration and occasional flare-ups between the forward packs.
The Highlanders had worked hard, without absolute control, to carve out a 16-9 lead by half-time with a crucial try to centre Shaun Treeby. The Lions hit back with a second half try to backrower Joshua Strauss, leaving it level at 16-16 after 49 minutes.
Jantjies and Sopoaga exchanged penalties until the 79th minute when Sopoaga's missed touch gave the Lions the chance to rally and build toward the winning try.
"That's rugby, mate. You've got to find touch, you've got to hold onto the ball and we didn't do any of that tonight," Highlanders captain Jamie Mackintosh said.
"We were in a great position to make a run through (to the playoffs) but we've hit a banana skin and it's really disappointing."
In next weekend's Round 16 action, the Highlanders host the Western Force in Dunedin, while the Lions travel to Wellington to face the Hurricanes.
15 Ben Smith, 14 Kade Poki, 13 Kendrick Lynn, 12 Shaun Treeby, 11 Siale Piutau, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Jimmy Cowan, 8 Nasi Manu, 7 Alando Soakai, 6 Adam Thomson, 5 Josh Bekhuis, 4 Jarrad Hoeata, 3 Chris King, 2 Mo Schwalger, 1 Jamie Mackintosh (captain).
Substitutes: 16 Jason Rutledge, 17 Bronson Murray, 18 Nick Crosswell, 19 John Hardie, 20 Aaron Smith, 21 Matt Saunders, 22 Robbie Robinson.
15. Jaco Taute, 14. Dylan des Fountain, 13. Doppies la Grange (captain), 12. Butch James, 11. Deon van Rensburg, 10. Elton Jantjies, 9. Jano Vermaak, 8. Josh Strauss, 7. Michael Rhodes, 6. Derick Minnie, 5. Franco van der Merwe, 4. Wikus van Heerden, 3. Patric Cilliers, 2. Bandise Maku, 1. JC Janse van Rensburg
Substitutes: 16. Edgar Marutlulle, 17. Jacobie Adriaanse, 18. Warren Whiteley, 19. Cobus Grobbelaar, 20. Rory Kockott, 21. Alwyn Hollenbach, 22. Michael Killian