Gutsy Highlanders snatch late win from Chiefs
It was meant to be the launch of a new era for the Chiefs in Hamilton, but instead the Highlanders staged a gutsy comeback to win 23-19.
After leading 19-9, the loss of three players to injury shocked Dave Rennie's new-look Chiefs, allowing the injury-decimated Highlanders to snatch a major first-up upset against most predictions.
After last year's mass exodus of senior soldiers the Chiefs appeared to have come together perfectly, despite the influx of 13 fresh faces.
But late strikes by lively New Zealand Maori halfback Aaron Smith and a charge-down by replacement hooker Jason Rutledge, which Phil Burleigh completed, turned this game on its head. The Chiefs were left star-struck, pondering how they let this slip after being in such a commanding position.
The pain of defeat was compounded by severe post-match player welfare concerns for Rennie. The losses of promising prop Ben Afeaki, who cracked his forearm just eight minutes into the season, weakened the already thin front-row stocks. The serious hamstring injury to former All Blacks halfback Brendon Leonard and a knee complaint to try scorer Lelia Masaga added to the toll and means depth will be immediately tested.
For the most part, this was a scrappy, error-riddled affair and, at times, it resembled sevens rugby with hot-potato passing catching on faster than try-time celebrations.
Jamie Joseph's spirited Highlanders, after losing all three preseason fixtures, fielded six new faces in their starting line-up, five in the backs alone, and it showed in the first-half.
From the base, Jimmy Cowan's delivery was laboured and outside him it became disjointed. It was no surprise when New Zealand Maori halfback Smith replaced Cowan seven minutes into the second spell. The All Blacks No.9 did not gel with Bay of Plenty pivot Chris Noakes, who kicked accurately.
It was Smith's vital five-pointer that sparked the visitor's shock comeback, but for much of the match, the Southerners lacked cohesion and a backline leader to convert the strong pick-and-drive graft of their hard-working forwards who often controlled the tempo. All Blacks flanker Adam Thomson led from the front in that regard, getting through a power of work at the breakdown and lineout.
Other than one-test All Black Tamati Ellison, who only arrived from Japan on Thursday night, no-one made in-roads for the Highlanders backs. The classy Ben Smith and powerful Hosea Gear went without quality ball.
But Joseph's half-time speech hit the spot.
The Chiefs much-hyped midfield of Sonny Bill Williams and Richard Kahui displayed glimpses of class. Williams, other than two handling errors, was his usual menacing presence. He complimented unstoppable offloading with a high work-rate on his debut for the Chiefs.
It was easy to see why Rennie worked tirelessly to recruit All Blacks playmaker Aaron Cruden, though it was his kick Rutledge charged. Not only did the Manawatu star kick 14 points, he directed traffic and made crucial cover defending tackles.
Cowan gift-wrapped the Chiefs' only try with a bungled no-look pass leading to a breakout which Masaga nailed after strong bursts from Williams and Kahui.
But the Highlanders hung tough, displaying the fighting qualities that they were renowned for last season.
On this evidence they will be a competitive unit in 2012.
Chiefs 19: Lelia Masaga tries, Aaron Cruden pen 4, con
Highlanders 23: Aaron Smith, Phil Burleigh tries, Chris Noakes pen 3, con