Super Rugby scores: Lima Sopoaga and defensive ‘pride’ get Otago Highlanders back on track

Lima Sopoaga's return to the Otago Highlanders spurred the New Zealand side to a 23-10 win over the ACT Brumbies in Super Rugby on Saturday.

Lima Sopoaga shown during an All Blacks training session last year. Martin Hunter / Getty Images
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Otago Highlanders 23, ACT Brumbies 10 (Highlanders 28 points, 5th; Brumbies 21 points, 10th)

Waikato Chiefs 24, Sharks 22 (Chiefs 37 points, 1st; Sharks 22 points, 9th)

Blue Bulls 42, Western Force 20 (Bulls 28 points, 4th; Force 6 points, 17th)

Auckland Blues 36, Melbourne Rebels 30 (Blues 20 points, 11th; Rebels 23 points, 8th)

Queensland Reds 30, Central Cheetahs 17 (Reds 12 points, 14th; Cheetahs 12 points, 13th)

To play: Golden Lions (27 points, 6th) v Wellington Hurricanes (26 points, 7th); Western Stormers (28 points, 3rd) v New South Wales Waratahs (17 points, 12th)

Lima Sopoaga returned the Otago Highlanders to winning ways when they beat the ACT Brumbies 23-10 in a tough Super Rugby encounter in cold, wet conditions in Invercargill on Saturday.

Sopoaga scored 18 of the Highlanders’ points including three vital penalties late in the game.

But while the fly-half was the point-scoring hero, the victory was also a credit to a stubborn Highlanders defence after the Brumbies had them on the back foot for much of the game.

The New Zealand side were forced to make 160 tackles to 37 for the Brumbies who won the rucks and maul count 145-38.

“In that first half the Brumbies had a lot of momentum but couldn’t turn it into points. Our defence was really good and we managed to keep them out,” Highlanders skipper Ben Smith said.

“What we pride ourselves on is our defence and being able to work really hard for each other and get to the spots we need our mates to get to.”

Both sides entered the clash at Super Rugby’s southern-most outpost desperate to snap out of mid-season slumps.

The defending champion Highlanders had fallen off the pace with losses to the Queensland Reds and Sharks in their last two matches while the Brumbies slipped to second in the Australian conference when beaten by the Canterbury Crusaders last week.

Despite the slippery ball resulting in handling errors, there was a willingness to play at pace although points were not easy to come by in the tight first half.

The Brumbies, having tried and failed with three lineout drives when Sam Carter was penalised each time for obstruction, hit the front 3-0 with a Christian Lealiifano penalty after 15 minutes.

It was not until the stroke of half-time that the Highlanders turned the scoreboard to go into the break with a 7-3 lead.

A well-weighted Ben Smith kick forced the Brumbies onto their own line where they conceded a five-metre scrum and a long Aaron Smith pass put Sopoaga outside three defenders and he crossed unopposed for the try.

Ben Smith stretched the lead to 14-3 early in the second half touching down after Malakai Fekitoa bumped off an attempted Tevita Kuridrani tackle.

But the Brumbies were not done and found the answer to their rolling maul woes was to throw to Carter in the lineout rather than use him as a block and the big lock duly obliged by winning the ball for hooker Josh Mann-Rea to score.

At 14-10 to the Highlanders with 30 minutes to play the outcome was in the balance before a succession of infringements by the Brumbies allowed Sopoaga to stretch the difference to a comfortable margin.

Elsewhere, the Auckland Blues hung on to beat the Melbourne Rebels 36-30, giving victory to the last-place team in Super Rugby’s New Zealand conference against the top team in the Australian frame on Saturday.

But the Blues were hard-pressed to achieve the six-tries-to-four win. They led 36-18 after 52 minutes, then conceded two late tries.

A penalty awarded against the Rebels as they attacked with two minutes remaining finally clinched the match for the Blues.

“My heart’s still racing as we speak,” Blues captain James Parsons said. “We didn’t close it out as we would have liked but after not starting well we got ourselves into a good position. We’re just looking for that 80-minute performance.”

Meanwhile flyhalf Aaron Cruden kicked three second-half penalties to break a 15-15 half-time deadlock and steer the Waikato Chiefs to 24-22 over South Africa’s Sharks on Friday night.

Cruden took up the goalkicking duties after conceding them to fullback Damian McKenzie in recent matches, possibly in response to concerns from the All Blacks selectors over the poor goalkicking form of other flyhalf candidates.

He landed four penalties and a conversion – four goals from six attempts – doing just enough to keep the Chiefs’ noses in front in a struggle with the Sharks, who scored three tries to two.

In Perth the Pretoria-based Blue Bulls had a 42-20 win at the home of the Western Force to move into a share of first place in the South Africa 1 conference with the Western Stormers.

Chiefs captain Sam Cane described his team’s win as “fractionally ugly” and it was in keeping with recent performances from the tournament leaders, in which they have overcome flawed performances to keep their winning streak alive.

“It was a grind, and you only have to have watched a bit of the Sharks to know that’s what they’re about,” Cane said. “We’re very pleased to get the win, albeit fractionally ugly, but that’s what you’ve got to do against tough teams.”

The Queensland Reds recorded their second win of the season in Saturday’s third completed match when they beat the Central Cheetahs of South Africa 30-17.

After the two teams were locked together 10-10 at half-time, the Reds lifted in the second period to run out comfortable winners.

“It was pretty scrappy out there with the humidity, but obviously we’re pretty happy,” Queensland captain James Slipper said.

“It was a slippery ball. Both teams struggled with that, but our set piece dominated tonight and we got the win.

“Overall we’re tracking in the right direction, but we just want to build some momentum now.”

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