The Otago Highlanders put a big dent in the New South Wales Waratahs' Super 14 semi-final ambitions with a shock 26-10 win yesterday. The Waratahs, who were lying fifth at the start of the round, never got to grips with the cold and wet conditions in Invercargill or the never-say-die spirit of the Highlanders.
The New Zealanders, who were 12th in the table, ran in three tries to one - including a pair by flanker Adam Thomson - for only their third win of the season after 11 games. Thomson was one of the Highlanders' standouts, along with hooker Jason Rutledge, who made crucial contributions all over the field. The Waratahs' semi-final hopes will now depend on their last two games, against the Waikato Chiefs and the Wellington Hurricanes, as well as the fortunes of the other hopefuls.
The Highlanders dominated much of the first half through their impressive forward pack, with the scrums the only area where the Waratahs had an advantage. In contrast, the Waratahs were sluggish, obviously not relishing the cold, wet and windy conditions in New Zealand's far south. The early forward dominance paid dividends after nine minutes when Steven Setephano, theHighlanders' No 8, forced his way over the line after breaking from the back of a scrum five metres out.
Three minutes later, Thomson collected a clever wide pass from half-back and fellow All Black Jimmy Cowan for a converted try that stretched the lead to 12-0. Waratahs full-back Kurtley Beale struck back with eight minutes to go in the spell, running inside the defence and just evading the despairing grasp of Cowan to narrow the deficit to 12-10 at the break after an earlier penalty from fly-half Daniel Halangahu.
In the second spell, the Highlanders used the wind advantage to keep the Waratahs pinned in their half for extended periods with long kicks. Thomson's second try came only five minutes after the break, when the Highlanders spread the ball to the right flank, with full-back Israel Dagg and lock Josh Bekhuis featuring before Thomson took the final pass to go over. Poor discipline from the Waratahs and relentless pressure from the home side saw Highlanders' fly-half Matt Berquist add three penalties.
In yesterday's other match, the second-placed Stormers pulled away after a close first half to beat Crusaders, who went into the game with the same number of points, 42-14. Seven penalties and three conversions by Peter Grant accounted for most of the Stormers' total. Today's action sees the Coastal Bulls take on eighth placed Sharks, while the Queensland Reds will look to cement their top four status with a win at sixth-placed ACT Brumbies.
In this weekend's other games, the Wellington Hurricanes host the Waikato Chiefs, the Central Cheetahs play the Auckland Blues in Bloemfontein and the Golden Lions take on the Western Force in Johannesburg. * AFP