The manner in which the Highlanders celebrated Lima Sopoaga’s match-winning penalty, one would have thought they had actually won the Super Rugby competition.
Sopoaga’s 82nd-minute penalty and his fifth in succession epitomised the visitors accuracy at taking advantage of the opportunities they were presented by the Bulls to steal a 29-28 victory at Loftus Versfeld.
And although there might have been no silverware to play for at the end of this bruising encounter between the Bulls and the Highlanders, the New Zealanders have now proven to be worthy title contenders after breaking a Bulls team that has been threatening a return to their old destructive self in the past few weeks.
While the Highlanders will know that they were fortunate to walk away with the win at the death, it is the Bulls who will be left kicking themselves for letting go of a golden opportunity and make it four wins in a row and take a major step towards the play-offs.
It was the Highlanders who got off the blocks quickest with a fourth-minute try by All Black scrumhalf Aaron Smith, but they were soon under siege from relentless waves of attack from the hosts.
And that is where the problems for the home side began as they failed to capitalise with points on the scoreboard.
So dominant were the Bulls that their new look frontrow of Lizo Gqoboka, Adriaan Strauss and Trevor Nyakane were having a field day at scrum time and shunted valuable penalties from their overwhelming strength in the set-piece.
Gqoboka, who got his first start of the season after the six-week suspension to Pierre Schoeman, was not only strong in the scrum, but just as effective with ball in hand and made a lasting impression that will even have Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus smiling.
It came as no surprise that the Bulls outscored their opposition by four tries to two with Jesse Kriel’s 76th-minute try a thing of beauty and desperation and also what the few thousand specators who had gathered at Loftus assumed would be the winning score.
But the Bulls had underestimated just how desperate the Highlanders were to get their second consecutive victory in the capital in as many years.
When the opportunity again presented itself with the Bulls trusted defence a step or two slower in finding themselves offside, it was All Black flyhalf Sopoaga who stepped up to calmly slot over the winning kick to seal a flawless kicking display and hand his team a precious victory, which was worthy of the celebrations after the final hooter.