Highlanders pull off stunning comeback in Super Rugby

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Waisake Naholo of Highlanders during the 2017 Super Rugby game between the Cheetahs and the Highlanders at Toyota Stadium in Bloemfontein, South Africa on 5 May 2017.

Waisake Naholo of Highlanders during the 2017 Super Rugby game between the Cheetahs and the Highlanders at Toyota Stadium in Bloemfontein, South Africa on 5 May 2017. (Photo: Frikkie Kapp/BackpagePix)

BLOEMFONTEIN, South Africa (AP) — The Highlanders pulled off a breathtaking comeback with three converted tries in the last five minutes to overcome a 41-24 deficit and beat the Cheetahs 45-41 in Super Rugby on Friday.

Waisake Naholo scored the game-clinching try as the final hooter sounded to end a stirring, seesaw match that saw the teams produce 12 tries, score six each, and put on 61 points in the second half.

The Dunedin-based Highlanders looked out of it twice in Bloemfontein, at 22-10 down early in the second half and then 17 points behind in the dying minutes.

Left wing Tevita Li began the final comeback in the 75th minute, fullback Matt Faddes finished off a long-range break in the 77th, and right wing Naholo was free on an overlap to complete a hectic last-gasp attack from the Highlanders for his second try of the night.

"We were definitely put under the pump there," Highlanders captain Luke Whitelock said. "But the guys' belief in the last five minutes, we had nothing to lose. We just had to go out and pull the trigger."

The tries flowed at the start of round 11. Earlier, the defending-champion Hurricanes scored seven, four of them from crosskicks by All Blacks flyhalf Beauden Barrett, to beat the Stormers 41-22.

Barrett set up tries for wingers Corey Jane, Julian Savea, and his brother, fullback Jordie Barrett, with pinpoint kicks, then scored the Wellington-based Hurricanes' last try two minutes after the final hooter to keep up the Hurricanes' average of seven tries per game.

The results tightened the race in the New Zealand conference, with nine points between leaders the Crusaders, who play Saturday, and the fourth-placed Highlanders.

The Highlanders were ahead 10-8 against the Cheetahs before yellow cards either side of the halftime break to Faddes and replacement forward Siate Tokolahi gave the impetus to the Cheetahs.

The home team crossed twice through wing Sergeal Petersen and hooker Torsten van Jaarsveld to take it out to 22-10.

The Dunedin-based Highlanders replied with their first flurry of tries, with center Rob Thompson and Naholo scoring in the space of three minutes to wrestle back the lead at 24-22.

The Cheetahs gained the initiative again, catching the Highlanders off-guard with long-range counters from across the field to score through Teboho Mohoje, Tian Meyer and a fabulous team try finished off by prop Ox Nche.

That try by Nche in the 60th minute was the last score for the Cheetahs, who still seemed certain to have worn the Highlanders out with a big lead and just five minutes to play.

The Highlanders had enough left for one final match-winning surge with the Cheetahs now down to 14 men with Uzair Cassiem in the sin bin.

In Wellington, the Hurricanes were expected to win comfortably after the Stormers were beaten 57-24 by the Crusaders and 57-14 by the Highlanders in their last two matches in New Zealand.

But the Cape Town-based Stormers were on terms with the Hurricanes at 22-22 after 64 minutes, and the home team needed two late tries to center Ngani Leaumape and Beauden Barrett's final score to win the match comfortably.

"They came out and had a point to prove tonight," Hurricanes captain TJ Perenara said. "They got a lot of unjust press for their last couple of performances. They frustrated us a little bit."

The Hurricanes seemed on track for a comfortable win when Beauden Barrett put in a perfectly weighted crosskick and Jane dashed in off his right wing to score.

Jordie Barrett then scored the first of his two tries when he went down with Stormers back-rower Nizaam Carr in the in-goal area and stripped the ball from him to score. Savea and Jordie Barrett then scored from Beauden Barrett kicks, swelling the lead to 22-10 on either side of a try from a rolling maul by Stormers replacement hooker Ramone Samuels.

A long series of penalties against the Hurricanes allowed the Stormers to cut the lead to 22-16 by halftime, then draw level at 22-22.

But Leaumape scored the first of his two tries from a tapped penalty by Perenara and the second from a Barrett crosskick which freed Savea down the left wing.

Beauden Barrett made it convincing and the Hurricanes extended their winning streak at home to 11 games.

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