Port Elizabeth - The Highlanders kept in touch with New Zealand's high-flying teams with a 48-18 (half-time 10-8) Super Rugby win over the Kings at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium on Saturday.
It wasn't pretty but the visitors got the job done with the try-scoring bonus point also secured thanks to a late onslaught that saw them score four tries in the final stages.
Earlier Matt Faddes had gone over for two tries while Dan Pryor and Jack Wilson also crossed before Patrick Osborne went over and Faddes added his third, with Aki Seiuli scoring at the death to add the gloss.
Wandile Mjekevu and Steven Sykes replied for the Kings, who were spirited in defeat as the scoreline did not reflect how the game played out.
It was an error-strewn first half in Port Elizabeth as only two tries were claimed, despite numerous chances, especially for the visitors.
Jamie Joseph had opted to name a largely second-string side for the fixture but he was forced to bring Lima Sopoaga into his starting XV after Marty Banks was injured in the week. They were still however without the likes of stars Aaron Smith, Waisake Naholo and Ben Smith.
The Kings could have been in front in the seventh minute when Highlanders second-row Mark Reddish, making his 50th Super Rugby appearance, took out scrumhalf Ntando Kebe at the base of a ruck. But Elgar Watts missed with his attempt as it remained 0-0 after a scrappy opening.
Sopoaga made no such mistake in the 14th minute after Kings hooker Edgar Marutlulle was penalised for making a high tackle and then came a contentious moment as centre Shane Gates was yellow carded for dropping Tom Franklin on his shoulder at a ruck. It could have been a red.
The Highlanders though made the most of their one-man advantage as sustained pressure led to Faddes going over from a standing start for 10-0.
However, the Kings then had something to cling to in the closing stages of the half when Watts landed three points before Mjekevu crossed from a flat pass by Kebe. Unfortunately for the hosts, Watts could not add the conversion that would have levelled matters at the break.
The Highlanders were forced into a change at half-time as Shane Christie suffered an injury with Pryor replacing the skipper on the flank. And he was a tireless worker in the second period, but not before Faddes had claimed his brace on the left, making it 15-8 after 46 minutes.
The aforementioned Pryor was next to cross on 54 minutes from the back of a maul as suddenly the Highlanders were hunting the bonus point.
But those hopes of a maximum looked to have been quashed when the Kings went over through Sykes, capping a lovely move that made it 20-18 with less than 20 minutes to play.
Such is the quality of the defending champions though that they regrouped and launched a late onslaught, with tries from wing duo Wilson and Osborne wrapping up not only the victory but also the bonus point before Faddes raced over for a treble and Seiuli made it 48-18.
In next weekend’s action, the Kings travel to Johannesburg to face the Lions, while the Highlanders fly to Argentina to duel the Jaguares.
Tries: Wandie Mjekevu, Steven Sykes
Conversion: Louis Fouche
Penalties: Elgar Watts, Fouche
Tries: Matt Faddes (3), Dan Pryor, Jack Wilson, Patrick Osborne, Aki Seiuli
Conversions: Lima Sopoaga (4), Fletcher Smith
15 Malcolm Jaer, 14 Lukhanyo Am, 13 Stefan Watermeyer, 12 Shane Gates (vice-captain), 11 Wandile Mjekevu, 10 Elgar Watts, 9 Ntando Kebe, 8 Aidon Davis, 7 Stefan Willemse, 6 CJ Velleman, 5 JC Astle, 4 Steven Sykes (captain), 3 Tom Botha, 2 Edgar Marutlulle, 1 Schalk Ferreira
Substitutes: 16 Martin Bezuidenhout, 17 Sti Sithole, 18 Justin Ackerman, 19 Schalk Oelofse, 20 Jacques Engelbrecht, 21 Kevin Luiters, 22 Louis Fouche, 23 Luzuko Vulindlu
15 Matt Faddes, 14 Jack Wilson, 13 Jason Emery, 12 Rob Thompson, 11 Ryan Tongia, 10 Marty Banks, 9 Te Aihe Toma, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 Shane Christie (captain), 6 Gareth Evans, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Mark Reddish, 3 Josh Hohneck, 2 Ash Dixon, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown
Substitutes: 16 Greg Pleasants-Tate, 17 Aki Seiuli, 18 Siosuia Halanukonuka, 19 Liam Squire, 20 Dan Pryor, 21 Jamie Booth, 22 Lima Sopoaga, 23 Patrick Osborne