Highlanders vs. Bulls: Match report
Palmerston North was the venue, with the Otago-based franchise taking the game to traditional Hurricanes territory, where a crowd of over 10,000 turned up to witness one of the better games so far in 2009.
The Bulls arrived as the only unbeaten side, top of the table and the best defensive record; with only nine tries and 79 points conceded in five matches.
While they were missing Bryan Habana and Victor Matfield, they still boasted ten internationals in their match 22.
After beating the Hurricanes, arguably the strongest New Zealand franchise on paper, last week, there were most punters pick for victory.
Especially considering that in theory, the Highlanders are one of the weaker teams in the competition, with but three internationals in their entire squad (only the Cheetahs boast less).
In a match where the Highlanders said they were keen to take on the Bulls at their strengths, they did that and then some. They came out all fire and brimstone and put the Pretoria-based team under pressure they haven’t been under this season.
It was a match of classic domination, where the Highlanders came out and exerted themselves on the Bulls, and outplayed them in all their pet areas.
For the Highlanders, with three of their four losses by less than five points (vs. The Brumbies, Hurricanes and Chiefs) they are moving from predicted bottom dweller to legitimate dark horse.
For a team that has been handicapped by their lack of finishing and X factor, they exhibited both attributes in droves against the Bulls.
For a South African team that has been all class this season, they looked genuinely uncomfortable against a Highlanders team that is improving out of sight.
All Black halfback (a position of real strength in New Zealand rugby) Jimmy Cowan had a wonderful game as Captain; sniping, making breaks and completely shading the “incumbent” world’s best halfback.
Adam Thompson continues to be the form blindside flanker in the competition, looking every bit like a All Black forward, and the commitment of the team was irrepressible.
As Cowan remarked after the match, “We knew they would try and bully us, but we were up for it.”
“The structure was there, and we knew what we had to do.”
“We think we have been performing very well, and we are taking stepping blocks and building towards a big goal.”
One would think that after heavy victories over the Cheetahs and Bulls, as well as claiming the scalps of the Crusaders, that they goal may be of becoming the biggest outsider to make the top four and challenge for the title.
The stunned Bulls will now try regroup, in a match where they had no answers.
Captain Du Preez said after the game, “They put us under pressure at the set piece and the breakdown.”
“They are a physical team, and put us under pressure at our set piece,” he said as a matter of fact. “We were chasing, and should have played with more territory (in the second half) but we will just have to look at it on Monday and move on.”
While they remain entrenched in the top four by virtue of their previously unbeaten record, they will play some danger games in the following weeks that could turn their season around for the worst.
Tries: Shoemark, Dagg, Bowden, Cowan, Berquist
Con: Berquist (4)
Tries: Van Der Heever, Steyn
Highlanders - Bulls
Possession: 43- 57
B/D turnovers: 13-3
Highlanders: Eighth (13 points) jump to fourth (18 points), notwithstanding the remainder of the round
Bulls: First (22 points) fall to second, with only the Sharks able to overtake them this round
UPDATED HEAD TO HEAD: Played 14, Highlanders 9 Bulls 4
In New Zealand: Highlanders 6 Bulls 1
Highlanders upcoming: Bye next week, then host the Queensland Reds
Bulls upcoming: Crusaders in Christchurch then Waratahs in Sydney.