Patrick McKendry

Patrick McKendry is a rugby writer for the Herald.

Rugby: Highlanders ease past Bulls

Malakai Fekitoa is a contender for the All Blacks. Photo / Getty Images
Malakai Fekitoa is a contender for the All Blacks. Photo / Getty Images

Highlanders 27
Bulls 20

Look out, here come the Highlanders.

Last year's easy beats are anything but this season, as tonight's convincing victory over the Bulls under the Dunedin roof so clearly showed. Faced with an early barrage from the Bulls' massive pack, the Highlanders merely bided their time.

With men like Malakai Fekitoa and the two Smiths, Aaron and Ben, they will always be confident of their counter-attacking ability.

Whether they can maintain this good form remains to be seen. This victory has rocked them up the leaderboard from 10th to 5th, but they have a bye next weekend and following that two extremely tough fixtures against the Sharks and Stormers in South Africa.

Regardless, it would have been a pleasing performance for coach Jamie Joseph, who watched his team blow a big lead in their narrow victory over the Rebels on this ground last weekend.

This time the margin was more clear-cut due to their ability to cut loose in broken play and the Bulls' incredible knack of making mistakes just as they were in positions to score or increase pressure on the home side.

For the Bulls, so dominant for the first half an hour, so see the Highlanders come back relatively easily from the 13-3 deficit must have been a blow.

A brilliant over-thrown lineout taken by second-five Shaun Treeby - a planned move - led to Lima Sopoaga's converted try and a penalty soon after evened the score at 13-all.

The Bulls had played with such muscularity - they fielded a massive forward pack including veteran Victor Matfield and an openside flanker in Jacques Du Plessis who stands 2.1m tall - that their confidence must have been knocked. Their lineout was unbreakable and their scrum a real force, reaping as it did three tightheads.

Their first-half try was beautifully put together too, halfback Piet van Zyl chipping superbly from an attacking scrum into the hands of right wing Bjorn Basson.

Conversely, once the Bulls' initial onslaught had petered out, the Highlanders were a step ahead everywhere apart from the set piece.

Brad Thorn's departure with a right biceps injury straight after halftime did nothing to halt their momentum.

The Highlanders simply dug a little deeper, their fitness and, crucially, skill level a level or two above the Bulls'.

Centre Fekitoa's break and pass put Gareth Evans away for a try which gave the Highlanders the lead for the first time and then he scored one himself, through pace and power, accepting an inside pass from Aaron Smith to go under the posts. It is little wonder the former Blues midfielder is on All Blacks coach Steve Hansen's radar.

The Bulls reverted to what they know, but once the Highlanders defused their driving maul it was all over; prop Marcel van der Merwe scoring a consolation try.

Highlanders 27 (Lima Sopoaga, Gareth Evans, Malakai Fekitoa tries; Sopoaga 2 pens, 3 cons) Bulls 20 (Bjorn Basson, Marcel van der Merwe tries; Jacques-Louis Potgieter 2 pens, 2 cons) Halftime: 13-13

- APNZ

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