Highlanders edge past Chiefs
Cape Town - The Highlanders staged a second-half comeback to defeat the Chiefs 23-19 in Hamilton on Saturday.
The Highlanders, weakened by injuries during the pre-season, trailed 19-9 early in the second half but scored two late tries to overcome a Chiefs outfit boasting high-profile recruits Sonny Bill Williams and Aaron Cruden.
"The boys showed some spirit," Highlanders captain Jamie Mackintosh said. "The pre-season didn't go the way we wanted, we dropped all three of them and it was all about turning up tonight.
"We managed that and it turned out to be quite a good game of footy. The way the boys hung on at the end was very pleasing."
The Highlanders drew first blood with a penalty to Super Rugby debutant Chris Noakes in the first minute.
The Chiefs then suffered a setback when prop Ben Afeaki left the field with a suspected broken arm but Williams and Cruden soon had the home side back on level terms.
A driving run from Williams, who joined from the Crusaders, earned a penalty for the Chiefs, which was converted by fellow All Black Cruden, an off-season signing from the Wellington Hurricanes.
Noakes re-established the Highlanders' lead with another penalty, only for the Chiefs to counter with a try when Williams and Cruden combined again to leave the Highlanders' defence flat-footed and send Leila Masaga over the line.
Williams, a part-time boxer who won the New Zealand heavyweight title earlier this month, showed why the Chiefs were so eager to sign him with some powerful runs and offloads from seemingly impossible situations.
The final stages of the first half became an attritional slog, with Cruden potting two more penalties to extend the Chiefs' lead and Noakes notching one more to keep the Highlanders within touching distance at 16-9.
The Chiefs dominated possession after the break, running into some ferocious Highlanders defence, and were rewarded when Cruden slotted home his fourth penalty in the 50th minute.
But the Chiefs' injury woes mounted when Masaga went off after twisting his knee and scrumhalf Brendon Leonard was replaced after hurting his hamstring.
The Highlanders made the most of the opportunity when Aaron Smith forced his way across the tryline with 20 minutes to go, with Noakes making the conversion to narrow the scoreline to 19-16.
A moment of magic from Jason Rutledge then put the Highlanders ahead, the hooker charging down a Cruden kick near the Chiefs' line, then re-gathering and sending a pass to Phil Burleigh for a try.
Another Noakes conversion made it 23-19 and the Highlanders concentrated on holding onto the ball in the final 10 minutes, seeing off a late raid from the Chief to seal the win.
In next weekend's Round 2 action, the Highlanders host the Crusaders in Dunedin, while the Chiefs play the Blues in Hamilton.
15 Robbie Robinson, 14 Lelia Masaga, 13 Richard Kahui, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 Tim Nanai-Williams, 10 Aaron Cruden, 9 Brendon Leonard, 8 Fritz Lee, 7 Sam Cane, 6 Liam Messam (captain), 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Craig Clarke, 3 Ben Afeaki, 2 Hika Elliot, 1 Sona Taumalolo
Substitutes: 16 Mahonri Schwalger, 17 Toby Smith, 18 Michael Fitzgerald, 19 Tanerau Latimer, 20 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 21 Andrew Horrell, 22 Asaeli Tikoirotuma
15 Ben R Smith, 14 Buxton Popoalii, 13 Tamati Ellison, 12 Phil Burleigh, 11 Hosea Gear, 10 Chris Noakes, 9 Jimmy Cowan, 8 Nasi Manu, 7 John Hardie, 6 Adam Thomson, 5 Nick Crosswell, 4 Josh Bekhuis, 3 Chris King, 2 Andrew Hore, 1 Jamie MacKintosh (captain)
Substitutes: 16 Jason Rutledge, 17 Bronson Murray, 18 Culum Retallick, 19 James Haskell, 20 Aaron Smith, 21 Lima Sopoaga, 22 Kurt Baker