Seventeen points down with only a few minutes remaining, Highlanders coach Tony Brown admits he had already given up the ghost on his side's encounter with the Cheetahs this morning.

"I had moved on to the next game," he said afterwards. "Probably, honestly, we were hoping to get a bonus point [from this one]."

Instead, the former All Blacks first-five witnessed a miraculous rally, the likes of which he had rarely seen in his 16-year first-class career, as the Highlanders scored three converted tries in five minutes for their 45-41 victory at Bloemfontein.

Brown allowed himself a little fist pump, after All Blacks wing Waisake Naholo scored the gamewinner with time up on the clock, capping several phases of building pressure on the Cheetahs line.


The best comparison he could make - watching Oracle Team USA pull back Team New Zealand's seemingly unassailable advantage at the 2013 America's Cup.

"In rugby, maybe Jonah Lomu scoring that try against Aussie ... I was involved in that game," reflected Brown. "It was just an awesome effort.

"When we scored that second try straight off the kick-off, we thought we had a chance. For us to hold onto the ball for all those phases and then execute really well on the outside to put Waisake in, I was just really proud, as a coach.

"It was a great effort from our guys."

Ironically, after playing much of the game with 14 men and a few minutes with just 13, the key moment for the Highlanders came, when Cheetahs replacement Uzair Cassiem was yellow-carded for a dangerous tackle on prop Aki Seiuli with eight minutes remaining.

Short-handed and running out of gas, the home side could not withstand a southerners' surge that produced tries to wing Tevita Li and fullback Matt Faddes, both quickly converted by Marty Banks, who was again flawless off the tee throughout.

"That was what lost them the game in the end, getting that yellow card," observed Brown. "It gave us the belief that we could pull off those tries at the end.

"It's massive for your game to be playing with 14 - it just puts your whole team under pressure.

"Even though, sometimes, it doesn't look as though it affects the team that much, physically and energy-wise, it's pretty tough for the guys to make up for someone's that's been binned."

The Highlanders also lost Faddes and prop Siate Tokolahi to the sin bin either side of half-time, both for dangerous tackles, although replays suggested Faddes was certainly hard done by.

"No way that was a yellow card," insisted Brown. "What do you do in that situation, when a guy is running at you ... you have to prepare to tackle him and then he passes.

"There was no malice, he used his arms and the guy just ran into him."

The Cheetahs came into the game with just two wins from nine games this season and the threat of Super Rugby extinction hanging over them. This result won't help their predicament.

"I thought the Cheetahs were outstanding tonight and probably deserved to win that game," said Brown.

"I feel sorry for [Cheetahs coach Franco Smith] and his coaching team. When you can't win games of rugby, those things tend to happen to you - rugby can be a tough game at times.

"I think we were poor in our first-half effort and a few referee calls didn't go our way. We got a couple of yellow cards, so we were putting ourselves under pressure, which kept them in the game early.

"Then they had 20 minutes in that second half where they were just unstoppable and played some awesome footy, but when teams are struggling, like I guess they are, trying to close out a game is tough like that."

Next up, the Highlanders visit the three-win/five-loss Bulls in Pretoria next Sunday (NZ time).