GARETH DUNCAN watched the Highlanders come back from a 16-9 half-time deficit to beat the Chiefs 23-19 in Hamilton.
For the opening 60 minutes, it seemed that the Chiefs were cruising to a winning start to the season. They held the ascendancy for most parts of the game with their superior attack and resilient defence, and led 19-9 early in the second stanza. However, an unfortunate series of injuries for the hosts cost them momentum. Then a late charge from the Highlanders saw the visitors score two tries in quick succession while a solid defensive effort in the dying seconds secured them a great comeback victory.
The Chiefs’ new recruits played a major role in their strong start to the game as they secured a 16-9 lead at the break. Inside centre Sonny Bill Williams was highly influential in the midfield battle, with his offload, strong ball carrying and influence at the breakdowns pressurising the Highlanders into conceding penalties in kickable positions. Flyhalf Aaron Cruden showed great accuracy from the tee, slotting three penalties from around the park.
The hosts scored their try from a smart counter attack, after a mistake from scrumhalf Jimmy Cowan. The Highlanders No 9 threw a no-look pass that didn’t go to hand in centre field, and the Chiefs pounced. After several offloads and phases, wing Leila Masaga eventually crashed over for the opening try of the match. The Highlanders were seven points adrift at half-time as flyhalf Chris Noakes slotted three penalties.
Cruden continued his flawless kicking performance with an early three-pointer, but that proved to be the Chiefs’ last points of the match.
Their downfall started when Masaga, scrumhalf Brendon Leonard and No 8 Fritz Lee limped off with injury. This had a negative effect, which saw momentum swing into the Highlanders’ favour.
First, reserve scrumhalf Aaron Smith capitalised on good continuity on attack before reserve hooker Jason Rutledge’s charge down and offload put inside centre Phil Burleigh through in the corner. Noakes added both conversions to force a four-point deficit.
The Chiefs had the opportunity to claim a match-winning try at death, but they couldn’t break the Highlanders’ strong guard as the latter held on for the win.