The quest to farewell a host of departing stars in their final game of the season under the Dunedin roof fell flat for the Highlanders. A deflating draw does little to enhance their prospects of making the playoffs, too.

It hasn't been a trademark campaign from the Highlanders and in many ways this result against the Bulls reflected their inconsistent, unreliable form.

Coming off two defeats in South Africa, the Highlanders were intent on running the Bulls off their feet. At times that meant pushing the risk factor too far into the red.

For all the Highlanders' dominance the game hung in the balance as the Bulls battered away through their big pack in the final quarter with a series of scrums near the local's line.

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Springboks playmaker Handre Pollard, who flew in for this match, grabbed control to keep his side in the contest and when replacement hooker Jaco Visagie crashed over to level with five minutes to play, it was anyone's game.

Having blown a 10 point second half lead, the Highlanders had one final chance to steal the result with a scrum on halfway.

That final passage summed up the ridiculous match with four turnovers shifting possession and, with it, prospects of victory. From one end to the other both teams went, and yet four minutes into added time, they could not be separated.

The Highlanders now need need a miracle to crack the finals.

Next weekend they finish the regular season in Invercargill against the Waratahs so tonight, on home turf, offered the chance to pay tribute to the likes of influential and long-serving All Blacks Ben Smith, Waisake Naholo and Luke Whitelock, in his 100th Super Rugby match, all of whom will leave the franchise at the end of this campaign.

All involved will be disappointed they could not give those players the result they deserved.

Whitelock was typically industrious and, in a welcome sight, All Blacks blindside Liam Squire returned for his first appearance for the Highlanders in 11 months, coming through a 48-minute shift unscathed.

Naholo, playing his last match in Dunedin before joining London Irish next season, scored two tries but it wasn't enough to celebrate with the desired result.

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Accuracy was not the modus operandi of either team with offloads thrown as if they were free goods being slung out the back of a trailer. Structure went out the window, movements were overly ambitious, but it was entertaining, nonetheless.

The Highlanders made regular threatening breaks but were hurt by turnovers at both ends of the park, squandering a number of opportunities.

Aaron Smith enjoyed quick ball and combined well with young playmaker Josh Ioane, who missed two crucial conversions. For large periods the Highlanders dominated and they outscored the Bulls four-tries-to-three.

Smith's vision and dink over the top set up Josh McKay's opening strike, and the sharp passing from the All Blacks halfback was also hugely influential.

The Highlanders midfield of Sio Tomkinson and Rob Thompson provided classy touches; Jackson Hemopo performed strongly from lock and McKay, with two tries from fullback, gave a glimpse into the future as Ben Smith ran the tee alongside his daughter in his final home appearance.

Fast tempo proved too much for the Bulls defence to handle but the Highlanders' mistakes kept them in the game.

The visitors recovered, with Schalk Brits roaming like a loose forward, from 12-0 down to strike through Divan Rossouw and Jason Jenkins. And in the latter stages of the second half the Bulls managed to slow the pace to close the margin and sneak two points away from home.

Finishing their tour with one win and two draws, the Bulls will certainly be more pleased than the Highlanders.

Strangely, this is also the fourth draw in 15 games between New Zealand and South African opposition this season.

Highlanders 24 (Josh McKay 2, Waisake Naholo 2 tries, Josh Ioane con 2)
Bulls 24 (Divan Rossouw, Jason Jenkins, Jaco Visagie tries, Handre Pollard con 3, pen)
HT: 19-14