Highlanders stun Chiefs with 2nd-half blitz
The Otago Highlanders scored two tries in five second-half minutes to overhaul the Waikato Chiefs 23-19 in a bruising Super Rugby season-opener in Hamilton on Saturday that proved costly for both sides.
The Chiefs led 19-9 into the last quarter but were stunned by tries to replacement scrumhalf Aaron Smith and inside centre Phil Burleigh and were shut out repeatedly by desperate defending in the final minutes.
"The boys showed some spirit... We knew the Chiefs boys really wanted to step up with their forward pack and we managed that and it turned out to be quite a good game of footy," Highlanders captain Jamie Mackintosh said in a pitchside interview.
"The way the boys hung on 'til the end, that's a bit of character and something to build on."
The Chiefs lost winger Lelia Masaga to an apparent knee injury sustained in a tackle in the second half and scrumhalf Brendan Leonard came off soon after, clutching his hamstring.
The Highlanders also lost flyhalf Chris Noakes to a leg injury in the final minutes.
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The Chiefs' All Black flyhalf Aaron Cruden was dominant early, setting up a try and slotting four penalties to drive Awikato to a 16-9 lead at halftime, but made a howling mistake under pressure that ultimately cost the game.
Attempting to clear the ball deep in defence, Cruden's kick was charged down by replacement hooker Jason Rutledge, who calmly collected the spilled ball and offloaded to a charging Burleigh.
The centre cantered over the line in the left corner for the Highlanders' second try in the 65th minute. After Noakes' second conversion, the Highlanders protected the lead grimly to the end.
Masaga scored the Chiefs' only try in the 13th minute following a blistering run down the touchline from Cruden, who offloaded to outside centre Richard Kahui.
Kahui was stopped five metres from the line but the ball was quickly recycled and spread wide to winger Masaga, who barged through left of the posts.
Following the Chiefs' second-half injuries, the Highlanders raised the pressure with a brilliant team try in the 61st minute.
Flanker Adam Thomson offloaded to outside centre Tamati Ellison, who burst through in front of the posts before handing off to Smith to barge over the line for his first try in Super Rugby.
Chiefs – Try: Lelia Masaga. Conversion: Aaron Cruden. Penalties: Cruden (4).
Highlanders – Tries: Aaron Smith, Phil Burleigh. Conversions: Chris Noakes (2). Penalties: Noakes (3).