Rugby: Highlanders close gap on leading NZ teams

Highlanders 24
Cheetahs 21

Adam Thomson of the Highlanders dives over for a try. Photo / Getty Images
Adam Thomson of the Highlanders dives over for a try. Photo / Getty Images

Anyone doubting that the Highlanders can sustain their Super 15 rugby resurgence might be forced to rethink after New Zealand's southernmost franchise disposed of a plucky Cheetahs outfit 24-21 at Carisbrook in Dunedin tonight.

The rugby wasn't the sort to draw spectators to the edge of their seats but there was enough to suggest the Highlanders will continue to push the Crusaders and Blues in the race to be top dog in the New Zealand conference.

They scored three good tries and defended well for the most part, although they were forced to cling on in the final three minutes after the Cheetahs scored their third try of the match and closed to within three points.

The four points see the Highlanders draw level with the second-placed Blues on 25 points, one behind the Crusaders, after a fifth win from seven matches.

The Highlanders' ball in hand approach was easy on the eye and it reaped early rewards when flanker Adam Thomson crossed for the first of his two tries, the home team capitalising on the Cheetahs' rush defence to create early space for themselves out wide.

A Colin Slade penalty nudged the lead out to 10-0 as the home team pushed into a stiff breeze, but the Cheetahs struck after their first genuine attacking foray, prop WP Nel barrelling over from close range.

Centre Kendrick Lynn restored the 10-point margin when he waltzed through a midfield gap from a set piece, Slade providing the decisive touch when he drifted cross-field, drew in two defenders, and then slipped a neat inside pass to Lynn who scotted 20m to score under the posts.

The Highlanders consistently looked the better team with the ball but the Cheetahs have proven to be nuggety opponents on their tour of Australasia and they slowly worked their way into the game.

Their persistence was rewarded just before halftime when centre Robert Ebersohn crossed to close to 14-17 at the break, but Thomson sprinted away early in the second half to stretch the lead to 10 points and it remained that until the 77th minute when Cheetahs wing Philip Burger finished off a sweeping attacking movement to set up a grandstand finish.

All Blacks selectors would have been happy with what they saw as Thomson again stood out in the forward exchanges while first five-eighth Slade looked in good nick as he seeks a spot in the national setup.

Highlanders 24 (Adam Thomson 2, Kendrick Lynn tries; Colin Slade pen, 3 con) Cheetahs 21 (WP Nel, Robert Ebersohn, Philip Burger tries; Sias Ebersohn 3 con). Halftime: 17-14.


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