Waisake Naholo scored two tries as the Highlanders beat the Chiefs 24-14 in their qualifier play-off in Dunedin. SIMON BORCHARDT reports.
What a way to start the Vodacom Super Rugby play-offs. This was a cracking New Zealand derby with both teams playing high intensity, ball-in-hand, attacking rugby that thrilled the 22,500 crowd.
The Highlanders were deserved winners, scoring two tries, defending superbly to restrict the Chiefs to just one, and kicking well tactically. Whoever Jamie Joseph's men meet in the semi-finals next weekend will have to be at their best to beat them.
This was an absorbing contest from the word go.
The hosts thought they had made the perfect start, following a sniping break by Aaron Smith and a strong run from Liam Coltman that took play up to the Chiefs' 22. The ball then went wide to Lima Sopoaga, whose cross-kick bounced up for Patrick Osborne, with the winger 'scoring' in the left-hand corner. However, the TMO harshly ruled that Naholo, who Smith had passed to earlier in the move, had put a foot in touch before offloading the ball, even though TV replays suggested his foot had been in the air.
The Highlanders did get some reward for their early dominance when Sopoaga kicked a penalty goal, but that was cancelled out almost immediately by Andrew Horrell. However, the Chiefs flyhalf was off-target with his next two attempts.
The Highlanders struck an important blow from a scrum on halfway in the 23rd minute. Aaron Smith broke away on the blindside and found Naholo, who passed back inside to his scrumhalf and then received possession again to score in the right-hand corner. Sopoaga missed the difficult conversion, with Horrell then slotting a simple penalty.
The Chiefs were looking dangerous with ball in hand, but a big hit from Malakai Fekitoa on Horrell resulted in one promising attack breaking down, and a good counter-attacking run from Damian McKenzie came to nought as the Highlanders forced a turnover on the ground.
The visitors attacked again as the half-time hooter sounded, and while they were unable to get over the tryline, Horwill's third penalty gave them a 9-8 lead.
The Highlanders made a superb start to the second half, with a sustained attack resulting in a 5m scrum, from which Aaron Smith went blind and put Naholo over for his second try of the night and 11th of the season. Sopoaga nailed the touchline conversion.
The Chiefs dominated the next period of play, but were unable to add to their tally, with Sopoaga's second penalty making it 18-9 after 55 minutes.
The visitors continued to attack, putting a kickable penalty into touch and winning the lineout. Several phases later and Brodie Retallick crashed over to bring his team back within striking range.
But Horwill missed the conversion and Sopoaga's third penalty gave the hosts a seven-point advantage.
The Chiefs had 80% possession and territory between the 65th and 75th minutes, but the Highlanders withstood that onslaught and secured victory with a late Sopoaga penalty.
Highlanders – Tries: Waisake Naholo (2). Conversion: Lima Sopoaga. Penalties: Lima Sopoaga (4).
Chiefs – Try: Brodie Retallick. Penalties: Andrew Horrell (3).
Highlanders – 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Richard Buckman, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu (c), 7 Dan Pryor, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Mark Reddish, 4 Alex Ainley, 3 Josh Hohneck, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Brendon Edmonds.
Subs: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Daniel Lienert-Brown, 18 Ross Geldenhuys, 19 Joe Latta, 20 Gareth Evans, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Marty Banks, 23 Shaun Treeby.
Chiefs – 15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Bryce Heem, 13 Tim Nanai-Williams, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 James Lowe, 10 Andrew Horrell, 9 Brad Weber, 8 Liam Messam (c), 7 Sam Cane, 6 Michael Fitzgerald, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Matt Symons, 3 Ben Tameifuna, 2 Hika Elliot, 1 Pauliasi Manu.
Subs: 16 Quentin MacDonald, 17 Siate Tokolahi, 18 Jamie Mackintosh, 19 Mitchell Crosswell, 20 Michael Leitch, 21 Kayne Hammington, 22 Marty McKenzie, 23 Seta Tamanivalu.
Photo: Rob Jefferies/Getty Images