The Highlanders held on in the face of a fierce late charge by the Cheetahs to record a vital 21-17 Super 14 Round Nine win at Rugby Park in Invercargill on Friday.
The win saw the Highlanders move up to sixth place in the standings, at least for the next 24 hours.
It was a match the Highlanders deserved to win and could well have won more easily but for those last eight agonising minutes when the Cheetahs hammered out their line and brave Clarke Dermody saved the side, bustling up the touch line with great determination to move the ball away from his goal-line.
The Highlanders started off each half with great intent and many phases but then fizzled into mediocrity.
The Cheetahs started the first half with a multitude of juvenile errors which gave the Highlanders a good lead and the look of comfortable winners.
After Gavin Passens had given away the most elementary of penalties by coming crudely into the side of a tackle/ruck and Nick Evans had put his side three points ahead, the Cheetahs suffered a major blow when Riaan du Preez was sent to the sin bin.
Matthew Saunders was running down the right touch-line and passed inside. After he had passed Du Preez bumped him into touch and was shown a yellow card, which re-emphasised the farce of the lenient treatment of Ezra Taylor of the Highlanders the week before.
While Du Preez was absent the Highlanders scored eight points.
First came a try by Kaine Thompson. Evans chipped. It looked innocuous but then the ball bounced in perverse fashion and some quick passing saw the tall lock gleefully over for the try.
The Cheetahs struggled mightily in the scrums with the presence of Anton Oliver and Carl Hayman making life difficult for the young, inexperienced Cheetah front row. They were penalised three times at Highlander scrums, the third time when experienced Ollie le Roux, on for Du Preez, collapsed. Evans goaled. 11-0.
Gradually the Cheetahs worked their way into he game and their try in the half was a splendid one. Busy Kabamba Floors won a turn-over at a tackle and Juan Smith charged down the left. He was tackled but the Cheetahs won quick ball and Meyer Bosman floated a long pass over to Eddie Fredericks on the far right and the wing rounded for the try which Willem de Waal converted.
That made the half-time score 11-7.
An innocuous kick was the lead-up to the Highlanders try. They chased, Passens messed and suddenly Lucky Mulipola burst clear for a run to the line. Charlie Hore was on at flyhalf now as Evans moved to fullback in the place of injured Glen Horton. Hore converted. 18-7 after six minutes in the second half. De Waal kicked a penalty and then Hore kicked a penalty. 21-10.
The Cheetahs, who had defended manfully early inn the half, then went on the attack and it was the Highlanders' turn to defend manfully. And nobody was more manful than Jimmy Cowan.
He tackled Phillip Burger out at the right corner, his second try-saving tackle of the night.
The Cheetahs had a good scrum on the Highlanders' ball five metres from their line and forced an attacking line-out which they caught and mauled over the line for a try credited to Floors. Bosman converted. 21-17 with seven minutes to go.
Back came the Cheetahs on all-out attack. They lost the ball but when Hore fumbled a pass near his line the Cheetahs hunted him down and were actually over the line, but held up.
From the scrum they attacked. The Highlanders were penalised. The Cheetahs tapped and attacked and Marius Joubert drove at the line where Cowan was on hand to drive him into touch at the corner.
The Cheetahs won the ball on the Highlanders' throw at the subsequent line-out but they did so untidily and sturdy Dermody drove up the line. He was into touch but the siren went and was followed by the final whistle as the Cheetahs tried to throw in quickly.
Man of the Match: Nobody contributed as much to the Highlanders' victory and the Cheetahs' defeat as Jimmy Cowan with his judgement, skill and determination.
For the Highlanders:
Tries: Thompson, Mulipola
Pens: Evans 2, Hore
For the Cheetahs:
Tries: Fredericks, Floors
Cons: De Waal, Bosman
Pen: De Waal
Yellow card: Wian du Preez (Cheetahs, 10 - foul play, tackle off the ball)
Highlanders: 15 Glen Horton, 14 Lucky Mulipola, 13 Matthew Saunders, 12 Callum Bruce, 11 Viliame Waqaseduadua, 10 Nick Evans, 9 Jimmy Cowan, 8 Craig Newby, 7 Alando Soakai, 6 Josh Blackie (c), 5 James Ryan, 4 Kane Thompson, 3 Carl Hayman, 2 Anton Oliver, 1 Clarke Dermody.
Replacements: 16 Jason MacDonald, 17 Chris King, 18 Hoani MacDonald, 19 Hale T-Pole, 20 Toby Morland, 21 Charlie Hore, 22 Aaron Bancroft.
Cheetahs: 15 Bevin Fortuin, 14 Eddie Fredericks, 13 Ronnie Cooke, 12 Meyer Bosman, 11 Gavin Passens, 10 Willem de Waal, 9 Falie Oelschig, 8 Ryno van der Merwe, 7 Juan Smith (c), 6 Kabamba Floors, 5 Rory Duncan, 4 Corniel van Zyl, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Richardt Strauss, 1 Wian du Preez
Replacements: 16 Ollie le Roux, 17 Hans van Dyk, 18 Dewald Senekal, 19 Duane Vermeulen, 20 Michael Claassens, 21 Marius Joubert, 22 Philip Burger
Referee: Stuart Dickinson (Australia)
Touch judges: Geoff Acton (Australia), Brent Murray (New Zealand)
Television match official: Gary Wise (New Zealand)
Assessor: Alan Riley (New Zealand), Keith Hendricks (South Africa)