The Highlanders moved provisionally fifth in the Super Rugby table after they beat the Bulls 27-20 on Friday.
In a result that saw them come from ten points down, the men from Dunedin crucially go second in the New Zealand conference having played the same amount of games as rivals the Hurricanes and Blues. They will now hope the Rebels can cause a shock against the Chiefs on Saturday.
The Bulls, who had lost Deon Stegmann and Dewald Potgieter to injury last week, did have the experience of Victor Matfield coming into their side. And the veteran's work at the line-out proved critical throughout as he dominated the sky while the Highlanders focussed on stopping the maul.
Matfield's presence and the power of centre Jan Serfontein and loosehead prop Dean Greyling was noticeable early on and it led to the Bulls leading 3-13 with 22 minutes played in Dunedin.
Those points came from a lovely blindside scrum move that saw Piet van Zyl set up Bjorn Basson for the opening try of the game on the right wing.
At this point it seemed the Bulls were showing the signs of upsetting the Highlanders in what surprisingly was their first fixture against a South African side this season.
However, the Highlanders recovered with an impressive spell that saw Lima Sopoaga go over from a Shaun Treeby pass that was touched in flight by a Bulls player. That converted score on 32 minutes pulled the hosts back to within three before Sopoaga slotted a leveller.
The recovery continued after the restart as the Highlanders turned the screw against a Bulls squad that looked fatigued after a recent test against the Hurricanes, one where they had to put in a lot of work defensively. And they were subsequently punished as the home side.
First in the second stanza it was blindside flanker Gareth Evans with a try down the left wing that saw the Highlanders take the lead for the first time in the game, with outstanding centre Malakai Fekitoa setting him up before he turned from provider to scorer on 54 minutes.
Fekitoa has become the signing of the season so far and that aforementioned finish as he came back on a switch put the Highlanders 27-13 to the good, which was how it stayed until the final seconds when Marcel van der Merwe crossed to hand the Bulls the losing bonus.
Tries: Sopoaga, Evans, Fekitoa
Con: Sopoaga 3
Pen: Sopoaga 2
Tries: Basson, M van der Merwe
Con: Potgieter 2
Pen: Potgieter 2
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith, 14 Richard Buckman, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Shaun Treeby, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Elliot Dixon, 7 Shane Christie, 6 Gareth Evans, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Brad Thorn, 3 Chris King, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Kane Hames.
Replacements: 16 Ged Robinson, 17 Craig Millar, 18 Ma'afu Fia, 19 Jarrad Hoeata, 20 John Hardie, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Trent Renata, 23 Nasi Manu.
Bulls: 15 Jurgen Visser, 14 Bjorn Basson, 13 JJ Engelbrecht, 12 Jan Serfontein, 11 Francois Hougaard, 10 Jacques-Louis Potgieter, 9 Piet van Zyl, 8 Grant Hattingh, 7 Jacques du Plessis, 6 Jono Ross, 5 Victor Matfield, 4 Flip van der Merwe (c), 3 Werner Kruger, 2 Callie Visagie, 1 Dean Greyling.
Replacements: 16 Bongi Mbonambi, 17 Marcel van der Merwe, 18 Paul Willemse, 19 Jacques Engelbrecht, 20 William Small-Smith, 21 Handré Pollard, 22 Ulrich Beyers, 23 Morné Mellet.
Referee: Rohan Hoffman (Australia)
Assistant referees: Kane McBride (New Zealand), Shane McDermott (New Zealand)
Television match official: Vinny Munro (New Zealand)