The Highlanders, showing greater enthusiasm, produced an upset when they beat the star-studded Chiefs 23-19 in their Super Rugby encounter at the Waikato Stadium, Hamilton, on Saturday.
With All Black Adam Thomson at the forefront the Highlanders came back from a 10-point deficit to scored two second-half tries and steal an early march on their rivals in the New Zealand conference.
Thomson, who was a tower of strength in the line-outs and also dominated at the breakdown, showed that teamwork and enthusiasm can always beat big names.
Apart from the loss the Chiefs suffered several setbacks in the game - the first when tighthead prop Ben Afeaki left the field with a suspected fractured forearm inside the first 10 minutes. It was a huge blow for the home team, who was already struggling in the set pieces.
It got even worse in the second half when Brendon Leonard injured hamstring while passing from the base of as ruck and Lelia Masaga was helped off after injuring his knee in a tackle. And late in the match replacement prop Toby Smith left the field with a knee injury, reducing the match to uncontested scrums.
The Highlanders did not escape the injury curse, with flyhalf Chris Noakes injuring his ankle late in the game.
Noakes and All Black Aaron Cruden exchanged early penalties, before a second Noakes penalty gave the visitors a 6-3 lead after 10 minutes.
Then the Chiefs gave the first glimpse of their counter-attacking ability - when they pounced on a sloppy inside pass from Jimmy Cowan. Cruden popped the ball to Richard Kahui on the right hand touchline, where it was quickly recycled by Sam Cane, who got the ball to Sonny Bill Williams. he was dragged down just a few metres short, but a quick recycle saw Masaga over - dragging two defenders with him.
Cruden made it 10-6 with the conversion and the exchanged penalties with Noakes again - before a late penalty by Cruden gave the Chiefs a 16-9 lead at the half-time break.
The Chiefs struck first in the second half, a Cruden penalty, to give them a handy 10-point cushion going into the final quarter.
However, the injury disruptions started taking a toll on the home team and with replacement scrumhalf Aaron Smith going over for the Highlanders' first try in the 62nd minute - with some great angled running setting up the score. The conversion by Noakes narrowed it down to just three points.
The Highlanders then hit the front when Phil Burleigh went over - after replacement hooker Jason Rutledge charged down an attempted clearance by Cruden, collected and off-loaded to the centre. Noakes' conversion made it 23-19.
While the Highlanders were happy to slow the game down and play a conservative game, going into the final 10 minutes, the Chiefs became ever-more desperate and lost all composure.
For the Chiefs:
Pens: Cruden 4
For the Highlanders:
Tries: Smith, Burleigh
Cons: Noakes 2
Pens: Noakes 3
Chiefs: 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.
Replacements: 16 Mahonri Schwalger, 17 Toby Smith, 18 Michael Fitzgerald, 19 Tanerau Latimer, 20 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 21 Andrew Horrell, 22 Asaeli Tikoirotuma.
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith, 14 Buxton Popoali'i, 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).
Replacements: 16 Jason Rutledge, 17 Bronson Murray, 18 Culum Retallick, 19 James Haskell, 20 Aaron Smith, 21 Lima Sopoaga, 22 Kurt Baker.
Referee: Jonathon White (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Vinny Munro (New Zealand), Nick Briant (New Zealand)
TMO: Bryce Lawrence (New Zealand)
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