WELLINGTON, New Zealand – Brad Thorn watched the last minutes of his 100th Super Rugby match from the sin-bin, seeing his Highlanders cling on grimly to a fragile lead and beat the Sharks 25-22, ending an abject run of eight straight losses this year.
Saturday’s match was only Thorn’s eighth for the Dunedin-based Highlanders — he played 92 times and won five championships with the Crusaders — but few victories in the 38-year-old’s career meant more as he helped the team to its first win of the season.
Thorn was born and raised in the small settlement of Mosgiel, only a few kilometres from the stadium at which the match was played. Though he made his name first as a rugby league player in Australia and then as an All Black, he told fans after the game he had never forgotten his Dunedin roots.
“I’m just really honoured to come back to where I’m from and I’m very, very proud to play in front of my people,” Thorn said. “Thank-you so much to everyone who’s stayed with us. I know it’s been tough.”
Despite the win, the Highlanders were still left at the bottom of the table but only a point behind the Southern Kings who were routed 72-10 at home in Port Elizabeth by the New South Wales Waratahs.
The Highlanders led 25-22 when Sharks centre Meyer Bosman scored his second try in the 61st minute. They then had to repel wave after wave of attacks from the Durban-based Sharks, many of them stretching to more than 25 phases.
The Sharks refused to kick for goal from any of the stream of penalties they received in the dying minutes of the match. A penalty would have given them a draw but they wanted a try, a win and a four-try bonus point.
The Highlanders’ defence, suspect at times this season, held firm. Thorn sacrificed himself with a professional foul but never retired to the plastic chair which acts as the sin bin in Super Rugby matches in Dunedin. Instead, he knelt close to the sideline, close to the action in the gripping closing moments of the game.
Just when it seemed the Highlanders’ defence would crack, winger Hosea Gear made a heavy tackle, jarred the ball free and the hosts were able to scramble a last possession which stopped the clock.
At the top of the table, the first-place ACT Brumbies increased their overall lead by one point despite being beaten 30-23 Sunday by the Christchurch-based Crusaders at Canberra in a match between teams who share nine Super Rugby titles. A late penalty goal gave the Brumbies a bonus point and a one-point edge over the Chiefs.
The Chiefs held out a gritty comeback from the Melbourne Rebels 39-33 in Melbourne and the third-place Bulls crushed the Wellington-based Hurricanes 48-14 at Pretoria, damaging the Hurricanes’ image as playoff contenders.
The Auckland-based Blues stayed four points behind the Chiefs in the New Zealand conference and in fifth place overall when they beat the Cape Town-based Stormers 18-17 in a match which was also resolved by dour last-minute defence.
The Perth-based Western Force drew 11-11 with the Queensland Reds in a match which was simply dour and did little to enhance the Reds’ title claims.
Fullback Gareth Anscombe, a reject from the Blues, scored three first-half tries that allowed the Chiefs a margin which made it possible to hold off the Rebels in the second half.
Wallabies fullback Kurtley Beale, returning from a month-long suspension due to an alcohol-fueled fight with two teammates in South Africa, came off the bench to score one of the Rebels’ five tries and help set up another.
But lock Brodie Retallick’s try following his block of an attempted clearing kick by Rebels flyhalf James O’Connor with eight minutes left ultimately gave the Chiefs their winning margin.
Two intercept tries in the first half set up the Bulls’ win over the Hurricanes, putting the three-time champions back on top of the South African conference.
Centre J.J. Engelbrecht and winger Akona Ndungane capitalized on adventurous passes by the Hurricanes for two of three first-half tries for the Bulls.
The Hurricanes had come back from 27-0 down at the break to 34-14 with two tries by scrumhalf T.J. Perenara but it wasn’t enough to worry the fast-starting Bulls, who returned to the top three in the overall standings with a six-try victory.
New South Wales wing Cam Crawford scored a first-half hat trick as the Waratahs outclassed the Kings. Crawford scored the Waratahs’ first of 11 tries after just 38 seconds and the Australian visitors had a four-try bonus point inside 19 minutes at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, which had rows of empty seats and a subdued crowd for the first time this season.
Queensland replacement wing Chris Feauai-Sautia’s try with seven minutes left allowed the Reds to grab a draw with the Force and to remain in second place in the Australian conference. Flyhalf Quade Cooper’s attempt for the winning points off a wide-angled conversion was pulled wide of the posts.
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