Waisake Naholo scored two tries as the Highlanders beat the Chiefs 26-13 in Hamilton on Saturday. SIMON BORCHARDT reports.
The Chiefs have been the team to beat this season. They came into round 11 having won eight of their nine matches and sitting pretty at the top of the Australasian group log. However, the champion Highlanders, who have suffered three defeats this year, showed at Waikato Stadium that they will not relinquish their crown without a fight.
According to SARugbymag.co.za's Opta-powered stats, the Dunedin-based franchise had just 43% of the possession. But that didn't matter as they made the most of the ball they did have while winning the territorial battle. They kicked 39 times out of hand, compared to the Chiefs' 25, with Aaron Smith, Ben Smith and Lima Sopoaga keeping the hosts pinned inside their half. The Highlanders' forwards were also hugely impressive as was the team's defence.
This heavyweight Kiwi clash lived up to the hype.
The Chiefs started strongly and were rewarded with an Aaron Cruden penalty. They could have had another shot at goal soon after, but Taleni Seu took a quick tap and the ball was lost forward a couple of phases later with the tryline in sight.
The Highlanders then got their hands on the ball, and a promising attack ended with a ruck penalty that Sopoaga sent between the posts. The flyhalf would kick another in the 25th minute to put his side in front and take his points tally for the season past 100.
Damian McKenzie missed a long-range penalty for the Chiefs, with the Highlanders then surging back onto the attack. The ball went wide to Naholo, who sprinted down the right-hand touchline before finding Ben Smith on his inside. The visitors lost a bit of momentum, but loosehead prop Dan Lienert-Brown picked up the loose ball just outside the Chiefs' 22 and ran away like a centre to score a try. Marty Banks, who was briefly on for Sopoaga, slotted the conversion to make it 13-3.
The Chiefs suffered a setback in the last minute of the half when Charlie Ngatai was harshly yellow-carded for taking Elliot Dixon out in the air, even though it was the Highlanders flank who had put himself in danger by jumping into the tackle. It could have been worse for Ngatai, though, as TMO Shane McDermott had recommended a red card before being overruled by referee Angus Gardner.
The visitors made their one-man advantage count early in the second half when they went wide from a scrum on halfway to Patrick Osborne, who cut back inside and took play to within 6m of the tryline. A few phases later, Naholo dived over in the right-hand corner to put his side 15 points ahead.
The Chiefs hit back almost immediately when Ngatai, who had just returned to the field, made a telling break to take play from inside his 22 to halfway. The hosts then attacked down the blindside, with James Lowe finding Ngatai, whose inside pass put Cruden away for the try.
The Highlanders' third try, and Naholo's second, came from a clever grubber from Sopoaga, which forced Toni Pulu to carry the ball over the tryline and concede a 5m scrum. The visitors then took the ball through 13 phases, before the winger scored in the same corner.
Any hope the Chiefs had of getting back into the game evaporated when replacement Maama Vaipulu was yellow-carded for a cynical infringement at the breakdown. Sopoaga kicked the penalty goal to make it 26-8 with 10 minutes to go.
Chiefs debutant Sam Vaka scored a last-minute try with his first touch of the ball, before a desperate tackle after the hooter denied Naholo a hat-trick try after the winger had intercepted McKenzie's pass.
Chiefs – Tries: Aaron Cruden, Sam Vaka. Penalty: Cruden.
Highlanders – Tries: Dan Lienert-Brown, Waisake Naholo (2). Conversion: Marty Banks. Penalties: Lima Sopoaga (3).
Chiefs – 15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Toni Pulu, 13 Seta Tamanivalu, 12 Charlie Ngatai, 11 James Lowe, 10 Aaron Cruden (c), 9 Brad Weber, 8 Michael Leitch, 7 Sam Cane (c), 6 Taleni Seu, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Dominic Bird, 3 Hiroshi Yamashita, 2 Hika Elliot, 1 Mitchell Graham.
Subs: 16 Nathan Harris, 17 Siate Tokolahi, 18 Kane Hames, 19 Michael Allardice, 20 Maama Vaipulu, 21 Kayne Hammington, 22 Anton Lienert-Brown, 23 Sam Vaka.
Highlanders – 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Matt Faddes, 12 Malakai Fekitoa, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 Dan Pryor, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Alex Ainley, 4 Tom Franklin, 3 Josh Hohneck, 2 Ash Dixon, 1 Dan Lienert-Brown.
Subs: 16 Greg Plesants-Tate, 17 Aki Seiuli, 18 Siosiua Halanukonuka, 19 James Lentjes, 20 Gareth Evans, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Marty Banks, 23 Teihorangi Walden.
Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images