All season long it has been said that the struggling Highlanders are too good a team to keep losing, and on Saturday they proved it as they clung on for a hard-fought 25-22 Vodacom Super Rugby win over the Sharks at the Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin.
The Sharks, had they valued such a result, would have gone away with a draw as they had a couple of penalties in very kickable positions that would have tied the game up.
But full marks to the Sharks for recognising what they needed and not lacking ambition – they already had a bonus point, and a draw would have got them only one more point, whereas a try in the final seconds would have given them both the victory and a four-try bonus point.
In the end though it is the Sharks, much like the Stormers the day before, who are left to lick their wounds and reflect on what might have been had it not been for a dropped pass here or a missed tackle there, not to mention the odd questionable decision from both themselves and referee Steve Walsh.
When it came to the latter, the turnover the Highlanders effected at a breakdown near their line with a minute to go was clearly illegal.
But like the Stormers against another New Zealand team, the Blues, the day before, the Durban franchise effectively lost the match in the first quarter.
Leading 15-7 and looking comfortable at halftime, it appeared the Sharks may have come out for the restart in a complacent mood, with the tap penalty try that Aaron Smith scored to bring the Highlanders back into the match three minutes into the half being a gift to the home team.
Five minutes after that Colin Slade kicked a penalty and suddenly the Highlanders, who had looked out of it earlier, were in the lead.
And it became worse for the Sharks when Ben Smith seized on a poor Sharks kick to set in motion a counter-attack that eventually led to Colin Slade, who had a great game for the winners, sliding over near the left corner.
He had earlier kicked a long-range penalty to add to his earlier efforts, so it was a 10-point game, and the Sharks were up against it with 25 minutes to go.
TRY OF THE SEASON
Much like it was with the Stormers the previous day, it was pretty much all the Sharks after that, and the try that brought them back into the game in the 63rd minute was a gem that would qualify for try of the season were there a television producer with the patience and time to reproduce it in full.
The Sharks built up for no fewer than 25 phases before being turned over by the Highlanders, who hacked the ball upfield and put the Sharks under pressure as the home side chased the ball.
From the breakdown Lwazi Mvovo broke away though, and surged upfield to set up a return counter-attack, and the ball then went through a couple more phases before eventually an off-load from Kyle Cooper created the space that Meyer Bosman needed to go through for his second try.
The Sharks did make some mistakes that stymied their attempts to win the game after that, among them Lambie’s failure to find touch as he tried to set up an attacking lineout in the right corner off a penalty in the 75th minute.
The Sharks did spend almost the entire last five minutes, plus a good couple after the hooter, in the Highlanders' strike zone, as referee Walsh awarded a succession of penalties, and they displayed great patience. But in the end you have to doff your caps to the Highlanders for their gutsy resistance.
It wasn’t always legal though, and Brad Thorn found himself yellow carded for his umpteenth bringing down of a lineout.
Could Walsh have awarded a penalty try somewhere along the line? Perhaps. But then you have to be certain the attacking team would have scored, and to be fair, there was never a situation that presented such certainty.
Perhaps the closest was when the Highlanders intercepted a Sharks pass right on their line and Walsh blew them up.
It never looked likely to be close as the Sharks scored two good tries to one in a first half where they started poorly before gradually finding their momentum.
Pieter-Steph du Toit was monstrous throughout the 80 minutes for the losing team and South African fans unhappy to see the Sharks lose can certainly console themselves with the knowledge that in the Sharks lock, the country has unearthed a real gem.
Ditto for Tera Mtembu, although he had to be replaced in the first half as he left the field in obvious pain.
Talking of injuries, Frans Steyn also looked in some discomfort when he left the field in the second half with what looked like an ankle injury.
The Sharks have to win every game from here, so John Plumtree will be hoping both those players’ injuries aren’t too serious.
The Highlanders were the first to score after Slade had hit the post with a ninth-minute penalty, but he was then responsible for the grubber kick that centre Paul Treeby chased down in the right corner.
But the Sharks hit back almost immediately. An attacking lineout didn’t work out for them because Thorn dropped the maul, but they tried it again, and this time the ball came free and Bosman went over untouched near the posts after 14 minutes.
Slade hit the post again and then missed one from almost in front just before halftime, so the Highlanders did have their chances, but a Lambie penalty put the Sharks ahead for the first time after 29 minutes before the flyhalf set up a brilliant try that saw a perfect chip kick find the hands of Bosman – another impressive player for the Sharks on the night – who passed the ball to Mvovo.
The left wing powered his way inside and into space left by a non-existent cover defence to score in the left corner.
HIGHLANDERS 25 – Tries: Shaun Treeby, Aaron Smith and Colin Slade; Conversions: Colin Slade 2; Penalties: Colin Slade 2.
SHARKS 22 – Tries: Meyer Bosman 2 and Lwazi Mvovo; Conversions: Patrick Lambie 2; Penalty: Patrick Lambie.