Super Rugby champions the Highlanders showed that they won’t be giving up their title without a fight by beating the Chiefs 13-26 in Hamilton.
The Highlanders victory is a fifth straight win over the Hamilton side and their seventh from ten matches this season.
The Chiefs started the week as Super Rugby’s leaders having won their last seven matches but the Crusaders victory over the Reds displaced them from the top spot.
The loss is the Chiefs second this season from ten matches. Both of the Chiefs losses this season have been at home as they lost to the Lions in the second round.
The result provisionally moves the Highlanders above the Hurricanes in the New Zealand Conference and the Chiefs remain in second place.
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The Hurricanes could move back above the Highlanders if they beat the Sharks later in the round. Notably the Crusaders lead the NZ Conference but have a game in hand.
Highlanders winger Waisake Naholo scored two tries in his first match back since breaking his leg in the opening round.
Naholo, the top try-scorer last year, touched down twice in the second half as the defending champions confirmed they are again serious contenders.
Highlanders captain Ben Smith said the return of Naholo had brought a new energy to the side.
“He’s had that presence during the week at training and the boys get excited when they see the ball in his hands. It’s great to have him back,” Smith said.
The Chiefs had been the competition pacesetters although their early season cohesion has deserted them in recent weeks with narrow wins over the Blues, Hurricanes and the Sharks.
The Chiefs set out with a game plan to run the Highlanders off the park but instead let themselves down with repeated handling errors and were forced to resort to a kicking game for territory.
They had first points on the board with a close range Aaron Cruden penalty but although they dominated possession for most of the first half they were held back from the line by a watertight Highlanders defence.
The southerners, however, made the most of their rare forays into Chiefs territory and turned with a 13-3 lead.
Lima Sopoaga landed two penalties and prop Daniel Lienert-Brown scampered 22 metres for the opening try.
Naholo scored his first try, finishing off a break by fellow Fijian wing Patrick Osborne early in the second half when the Chiefs were down to 14 men with Charlie Ngatai in the sin-bin for a tip tackle.
Ngatai returned to the field to make amends by setting Cruden away for a try in the corner as the Chiefs reduced the gap to 8-18.
But Naholo put the outcome beyond doubt with his second try in the right-hand corner after almost the entire Highlanders side featured in a lengthy build up.
Sopoaga missed the conversion but landed a second penalty before Sam Vaka scored a consolation try for the Chiefs on full-time.
Next week the Chiefs have a bye and the Highlanders host the Crusaders in Dunedin.
Final Score Chiefs 13 (3) Highlanders 26 (13)
Tries – A.Cruden, S. Vaka
Pen – A.Cruden
Cards – C. Ngatai (39th minute yellow), M.Vaipulu (68th min yellow)
Tries -D.Lienert-Brown, W.Naholo 2
Pen – L.Sopoaga 3
Con – M.Banks
Referee: Angus Gardner
Assistant Ref 1:Chris Pollock
Assistant Ref 2:Angus Mabey
TMO : Shane McDermott
1. Mitchell Graham , 2. Hika Elliot , 3. Hiroshi Yamashita , 4. Dominic Bird , 5. Brodie Retallick , 6. Taleni Seu , 7. Sam Cane (cc), 8. Michael Leitch , 9. Brad Weber, 10. Aaron Cruden (cc), 11. James Lowe , 12. Charlie Ngatai , 13. Seta Tamanivalu , 14. Toni Pulu , 15. Damian McKenzie
Replacements : 16. Nathan Harris , 17. Siate Tokolahi, 18. Kane Hames, 19. Michael Allardice, 20. Maama Vaipulu , 21. Kayne Hammington , 22. Anton Lienert-Brown , 23. Sam Vaka
1. Daniel Lienert-Brown, 2. Ash Dixon, 3. Josh Hohneck, 4.Tom Franklin 5. Alex Ainley,, 6. Elliot Dixon, 7. Dan Pryor, 8. Luke Whitelock, 9. Aaron Smith, 10. Lima Sopoaga, 11. Patrick Osborne, 12. Malakai Fekitoa, 13. Matt Faddes, 14. Waisake Naholo, 15. Ben Smith (c)
Replacements : 16. Greg Pleasants-Tate, 17. Aki Seiuli, 18. Siosiua Halanukonuka, 19. James Lentjes, 20. Gareth Evans, 21. Fumiaki Tanaka, 22. Marty Banks, 23. Teihorangi Walden