The Southern Kings responded in style to the call for them to bounce back from the previous week’s humiliation as they picked up a four-try bonus point on the way to beating the Highlanders 34-27 in a bottom-of-the-table Vodacom Super Rugby clash at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth on Saturday.
The Highlanders, who remain bottom after this defeat, fought back well in the last quarter hour of the game and they caused some consternation among the 18 000 Kings supporters in the stands in the final minutes that didn’t seem possible when the hosts took a 34-17 lead with just over 20 minutes to go.
It’s been a tough season for the Highlanders but they showed in scoring two tries and then launching one final assault that eventually ended when the Kings were awarded a penalty after the hooter that they still have a lot of team spirit and commitment to the cause.
Not quite as much as the Kings though, and the team from Port Elizabeth deserves massive credit for the way they fought back from last week’s huge hiding at the hands of the Waratahs at the same venue. It was hard to fathom the Kings as the same side that gave the Waratahs so much momentum and fell off their tackles seven days earlier.
This time they played with great aggression and control, and from the opening minutes it was clear that the Kings wouldn’t be taking a backward step. Whereas last week they conceded a try to the Waratahs after just 38 seconds, this week it was they who surged upfield from the start and after two minutes they had forced a penalty which Demetri Catrakilis kicked to make it 3-0.
With the Kings closing up space on defence and scrumming solidly against the more experienced Highlanders unit, the visitors were up against it, with the calm and collected Catrakilis kicking another penalty after eight minutes that extended the lead to six points.
The Kings were playing superb controlled rugby, and although the Highlanders did bring three points back with a Colin Slade penalty, the Kings captain Luke Watson was soon over the line for his team’s first try off a lineout driving maul. That was an occasion where the decision to set up the lineout rather than kick for goal paid off as bravery rather than stupidity, and the Kings were ahead 13-10.
Then came a bit of a blip as the Highlanders stuck back with two quick-fire tries that took the lead for them heading towards halftime, with the first of them starting with a Slade chip and gather inside his own 22 and being ended with another chip and gather as he finished under the posts.
A poor lineout throw, a rare one, then created a turn-over try for the Highlanders, with Slade’s off-load putting Shaun Treeby, the centre, in for a great run that split the Kings defenders and resulted in a try for Brad Thorn as the play swung back in the other direction near the Kings line.
The conversion made it 17-13 to the Highlanders and you might have thought that was a killer blow for an underdog team that had been leading 13-3. Plus it was just four minutes until the break, often a time in the game that can have a telling impact psychologically.
But you have to hand it to the Kings for the temperament they have shown this season and continue to show. Instead of panicking they just made sure they went back on the attack, a penalty set up another attacking lineout, and Watson had reason to celebrate as he touched down for his second try off another drive to reclaim the lead on the hooter (20-17).
The third quarter was all the Kings. They were clearly aware that the Highlanders would be looking to hit them hard after the break, and they resolved to get in first. Catrakilis missed a penalty kick, his only miss, as the Kings camped in Highlanders territory for the first 10 minutes before they took the ball through 17 phases en route to an excellent try rounded off by man of the match Cornell du Preez.
There could in fact have been several Kings players who were worthy of the man of the match award, one of them being Watson himself, not to mention Catrakilis, who controlled the game superbly and has proved in no uncertain terms that he is one that the Stormers let get away. Five minutes after the Du Preez try there was another good build-up, Bandise Maku made a break and he had scrumhalf Shaun Venter free on his outside.
The Catrakilis conversion made it 34-17 and after the previous week it was hard to look at that scoreline and feel it was believable. But it was, though in the last quarter hour the Highlanders did play with great flair and control and tries to Treeby and Hosea Gear forced the Kings to do some heroic defending in the last five minutes as they closed out their third win of the season and their first over New Zealand opposition.
They deserve the rest, and the four log points, they will enjoy next week.
Southern Kings – Tries: Luke Watson(2), Cornell Du Preez, Shaun Venter. Conversions: Demetri Catrakilis (4). Penalties: Catrakilis (2).
Highlanders– Try: Colin Slade, Brad Thorn, Shaun Treeby, Hosea Gear. Conversions: Slade (2). Penalty: Slade.