26 Feb 2012

Highlanders stun Chiefs with second half blitz

7:24 am on 26 February 2012

The Highlanders scored two tries in five second-half minutes to overhaul the Chiefs 23-19 in a bruising Super Rugby season-opener in Hamilton that proved costly for both sides.

The Chiefs led 16-9 at half-time and 19-9 into the last quarter at Waikato Stadium but were stunned by tries to Highlanders replacement halfback Aaron Smith and second five eighths Phil Burleigh and were shut out repeatedly by desperate defending in the final minutes.

The Chiefs lost winger Lelia Masaga to an apparent knee injury sustained in a tackle in the second half and halfback Brendan Leonard came off soon after, clutching his hamstring. Chiefs coach Dave Rennie says they've got at least four long-term injuries from the game, with two props also injured. Toby Smith has a calf problem and Ben Afeaki broke his forearm.

The Highlanders also lost first five Chris Noakes to a leg injury in the final minutes.

The Chiefs' All Black No.10 Aaron Cruden was dominant early, setting up a try and slotting four penalties 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.