The Highlanders gained their first win of the 2010 Super 14 season, beating the Cheetahs 31-24 at the Free State Stadium on Saturday.
The Highlanders were good value for their win in a hard-fought contest between two of the competition’s struggling teams – the New Zealanders always looked superior when they had the ball in hand.
The Cheetahs, seeking to win two matches in a row for the first time since they became a separate franchise, took an early lead through a penalty goal but trailed for the rest of the match. But the home team stayed in contention with solid forward play and committed defence.
The Highlanders led 15-9 lead at half-time, scoring two tries while the Cheetahs replied with three penalty goals by flyhalf Naas Olivier. The home side were awarded seven penalties to two during the first period but the penalty count was even after the break.
The first try after seven minutes came after a well-worked move, with the Highlanders building up patiently before flyhalf Michael Hobbs made a half-break and offloaded to hooker Jason Rutledge, who in turn fed prop Clint Newland. Centre Kenny Lynn ran into space and romped over after receiving from Newland.
There was an element of luck about the second try, however.
Cheetahs hooker Adriaan Strauss was tackled about 10m in from touch and as the forwards gathered to contest the ball, it popped out and was picked up by an unmarked Fetu’u Vainikolo. The left wing was able to run 65m to score.
The Cheetahs came back strongly in the second half, getting to within two points midway through the second period after flank Heinrich Brussow bullocked over for a converted try.
But the New Zealand team scored an excellent try through flyhalf Michael Hobbs after slick inter-passing with centre Jason Shoemark eight minutes from time.
At that point the Highlanders were 12 points ahead but the Cheetahs scored again through flank Juan Smith.
Both the Cheetahs tries needed confirmation from the television match official as the scorers barged through a melee of opponents.
The Highlanders, who finished 11th in the 2009 competition, while the Cheetahs were in last place, almost scored a bonus point try in the last minute as their forwards mauled furiously near the Cheetahs line. Television evidence was inconclusive.