Highlanders shock off-form leaders Sharks
Lima Sopoaga of the Highlanders runs at Forsyth Bar Stadium in Dunedin on April 11, 2014 - by Marty Melville
Lucky to defeat fellow South Africans Central Cheetahs last weekend playing what one newspaper called "stone age" rugby, there was no let-off for the Sharks against the energetic New Zealanders.
Highlanders combined strong, creative running and impressive field kicking to deadly effect, scoring four tries for a bonus-point triumph at Kings Park after building a 24-12 half-time lead.
The Dunedin outfit achieved victory despite struggling at the scrums and line-outs, being repeatedly penalised, and having lock Joe Wheeler sin-binned on 50 minutes.
Sharks suffered a major pre-match setback when injury ruled out inspirational skipper Bismarck du Plessis, who is rated the best hooker in the world.
Stand-in captain Charl McLeod was too busy duelling with rival scrum-half Aaron Smith to lift a home side guilty of many handling errors and poor execution of the basics.
Among the chief culprits was right-wing JP Pietersen, who had a shocker on his return from injury and wasted several try-scoring opportunities.
"It was a great win," boasted Highlanders No. 8 Nasi Manu, who shares the captaincy with full-back Ben Smith in a novel approach to on-field leadership.
"We knew it would be tough and fronted up. The guys worked hard for each other and coming to South Africa early helped us overcome time-zone problems."
McLeod said. "We did not execute our game plan, made bad judgments, committed silly mistakes and conceded too many penalties."
It was the first home defeat this season for the Sharks, whose lead over the Brumbies was cut to one point after the Australians' thumped the New Zealand Waikato Chiefs.
Sharks have 31 points, Brumbies 30 and defending champions Chiefs 25 while Highlanders climbed to fifth with 24 after 11 rounds.
Right-wing Richard Buckman, Aaron Smith, flank Shane Christie and centre Malakai Fekitoa scored a try each for Otago and fly-half Lima Sopoaga kicked four conversions and two penalties.
Sopoaga did not miss a shot at goal and his 123-point season tally is just one less than leading Super 15 scorer and South African Golden Lions fly-half Marnitz Boshoff.
England-born Sharks fly-half Tim Swiel, elevated from third choice last weekend after injuries to Patrick Lambie and Fred Zeilinga, succeeded with six of eight penalty attempts.
The Durban outfit took an early 6-3 lead, but Buckman won the race to dot down a grubber kick from centre Shaun Treeby on 18 minutes and Highlanders never trailed again.
Swiel did keep the Sharks in contention with his penalties until 13 minutes from time when Highlanders stretched a six-point advantage to 16 within three minutes.
Sopoaga slotted a close-range penalty and Fekitoa punished some shocking defending in a 40-metre run for a converted try.