The Otago Highlanders recovered from 14-11 behind at halftime to beat South Africa’s Cheetahs for only their second win this season.
It was another close defeat in a frustrating season for captain Juan Smith and his Bloemfontein men who themselves have won just once this season and are second-bottom of the table.
The New Zealanders, whose win lifts them one place to 11th in the 14-team standings, began their comeback when they scored their first try through replacement Aaron Bancroft a minute before the break to cut the deficit to three points.
They then mounted a thrilling serious of attacks to surge into a 31-14 lead with tries from Adam Thomson and Bancroft again while flyhalf Mike Delany added the conversion points.
The Highlanders had made no secret of their desire to win in South Africa after a dismal season yielding a single victory.
With 19 minutes left and a lead of 17 points, it looked as though the young and inexperienced men from Dunedin were on the verge of an emphatic victory.
But the Cheetahs, driven on by Smith, massed their reserves to force a maul over the line with replacement Hendro Scholtz seemingly in possession of the ball.
Referee Paul Marks referred the incident to television match official (TMO) Johann Meuwesen but video evidence was inconclusive as to whether a try had been scored.
After nearly five minutes of review, and with the Cheetahs players having given up, the score was controversially awarded.
To make matters worse for the stunned Highlanders, lock Tom Donnelly was immediately yellow-carded for a foul in the preceding lineout.
Although Meyer Bosman’s conversion brought the Cheetahs within 10 points at 31-21 the Highlanders could still breath easy until replacement Blair Stewart was sin-binned for a reckless high tackle on JW Jonker a minute after the score.
The Highlanders were reduced to 13 men when Smith chose an attacking lineout instead of a penalty and the resulting maul led to a charge-over try for Rory Duncan to earn the home side a bonus point.
However, the visitors held the ball through 13 phases of rigidly determined defence in the closing eight minutes to run down the clock and record their second victory of the season.
It was the Cheetahs’ fifth loss by seven or fewer points this season and, like the Highlanders, they may become a force in the future when the value of experience takes effect. – Reuters