Sopoaga boot sinks Bulls
Sopoaga kicked 19 points – five penalties and two conversions – in a 29-28 win that saw the New Zealand franchise move into fifth place on the standings.
The Bulls had taken the lead, 28-26, five minutes from time – with a well-worked Jessie Kriel try.
However, the Highlanders retained the ball through numerous phases and New Zealand referee Glen Jackson – who made contentious calls throughout the match – found an offside play on the Bulls 10-metre line.
Sopoaga, who had a flawless kicking performance, slotted from about 45 metres on the angle to secure the dramatic win.
The Highlanders had won the previous two matches against the Bulls, who have not beaten the Dunedin-based side in Pretoria since 2013.
The result brings an end to the Bulls' winning run – which had stretched to three matches after their tour of New Zealand.
The Highlanders' victory moves them up above the Chiefs to third place in the New Zealand conference – to go along with their fifth place overall.
The Bulls losing bonus point puts them level with the Jaguares on 20 points. However, although the Pretoria side have a better points differential the Argentina side remain ahead of the Bulls as they have one more win.
The Bulls dominated the scrums, and in the opening quarter won three scrum penalties.
The visitors' maul defence stood up to the test early on, but the Bulls did expose some space at the back through well-weighted kicks.
This led to the home side's opening try, when Highlanders fullback Fletcher Smith was unable to collect a grubber that had been stabbed through at ankle level. As the ball rolled clear, Fletcher illegally restrained tryline-bound Warrick Gelant, which saw a penalty try awarded and Smith sent to the sin bin.
Moments later, Handré Pollard snapped up a loose pass and darted away for an opportunistic try, which sent the Bulls into a 14-7 lead on the half-hour mark.
The visitors would have the final say of the first period, when Sopoaga popped over the first of his five penalties.
Having absorbed plenty of pressure in the opening half, the Highlanders made the perfect start to the second half – as Sopoaga slotted another penalty, before Fletcher Smith finished off an opportunistic try.
The Highlanders continued to build scoreboard pressure as Sopoaga then knocked over his third penalty, but the Bulls crucially struck back with a try to Jason Jenkins that cut the deficit to two points heading into the final quarter.
Momentum swung back and forth from there, and although Kriel looked to have won the game for the Bulls, it would be Sopoaga who emerged as the man of the moment with his superb final goal kick.
Next week in Round 12 the Bulls travel to Cape Town for their return match against the Stormers.
The Highlanders remain in South Africa but play the last placed South African team the Sharks in Durban.
Man of the match: Warrick Gelant on attack, Handre Pollard with the way he managed the game and Lodewyk de Jager's workrate put their hands up. Prop Lizo Gqoboka was the Bulls most productive player. All the Smiths – Fletcher at fullback, Ben on the right wing and Aaron at scrumhalf – were causing the Bulls enormous problems. However, our award goes to Highlanders flyhalf Lima Sopoaga – who won the match for his team with a sublime kicking performance.
For the Bulls:
Tries:Penalty try, Pollard, Jenkins, Kriel
Cons: Penalty try does not require a conversion – seven-point try; Pollard 3
For the Highlanders:
Tries:A Smith, F Smith
Cons: Sopoaga 2
Pens: Sopoaga 5
Yellow card: Fletcher Smith (Highlanders, 22 – cynical foul, holding a man off the ball)
Bulls: 15 Warrick Gelant, 14 Divan Rossouw, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Burger Odendaal (captain), 11 John-Ben Kotze, 10 Handre Pollard, 9 Ivan van Zyl, 8 Thembelani Bholi, 7 Jason Jenkins, 6 Marco van Staden, 5 Lodewyk de Jager, 4 Rudolph Snyman, 3 Trevor Nyakane, 2 Adriaan Strauss, 1 Lizo Gqoboka.
Replacements: 16 Jaco Visagie, 17 Frans van Wyk, 18 Conraad van Vuuren, 19 Hendre Stassen, 20 Nicholas de Jager, 21 Embrose Papier, 22 Manie Libbok, 23 Travis Ismaiel.
Highlanders: 15 Fletcher Smith, 14 Ben Smith (captain), 13 Rob Thompson, 12 Teihorangi Walden, 11 Tevita Li, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 Dillon Hunt, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Jackson Hemopo, 3 Tyrel Lomax, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown.
Replacements: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Aki Seiuli, 18 Kalolo Tuiloma, 19 Alex Ainley, 20 Shannon Frizell, 21 Kayne Hammington, 22 Kayne Hammington, 23 Sio Tomkinson.
Referee: Glen Jackson (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Ben O'Keeffe (New Zealand), AJ Jacobs (South Africa)
TMO: Willie Vos (South Africa)