Naholo shines as Highlanders beat Chiefs

Waisake Naholo scored two tries on his comeback for the Highlanders in a performance worthy of champions as they defeated the Chiefs 26-13.

The Highlanders headed to Hamilton having won their last four straight over the Chiefs and that run now continues, with Naholo's two scores the cherry on top of a composed team effort.

By contrast the Chiefs made an uncharacteristic number of handling errors and a yellow card for Charlie Ngatai on the stroke of half-time proved to be costly, with Naholo's first try after the break opening up a 15-point gap which the Chiefs couldn't close down.

Naholo had been out with injury since Round One, but he looked very sharp indeed and pumped up too, celebrating everything that went the Highlanders' way.

Ngatai's yellow card was a controversial talking point as referee Angus Gardner took his time over a decision. Ngatai collided with a leaping Elliot Dixon to send the Highlanders flanker flipping head over heels and fortunately not landing on his head or neck. 

Saturday's loss means the Chiefs will finish Round 11 in second place behind the Crusaders but the result matters more for the Highlanders, who make up ground on the rest of the Kiwi franchises.

Aaron Cruden gave the Chiefs the lead after five minutes with a penalty as the Highlanders were offside.

Usually so sharp with the ball in hand there were early signs of concern for the Chiefs as knock-ons creeped in. Lima Sopoaga was able to level the scores after Brad Weber was caught using his boot in the ruck, making it 3-3.

The accuracy of the Highlanders' kicking game had to be commended, having survived an early period of pressure from the Chiefs and beginning to settle into the contest thanks to the control offered by the boots of the two Smiths, Aaron and Ben, along with Sopoaga.

Sopoaga was able to land a second penalty to put the visitors ahead, bringing up 100 points this season for the fly-half, before he went off for a concussion test which he passed.

A mix-up then led to the game's first try, with the Chiefs defence stopping and after the ball went to ground following a failed switch in the Highlanders attack, before loosehead prop Dan Lienert-Brown scooped up and showed impressive pace to sprint to the line to score.

Marty Banks, on momentarily for Sopoaga, converted to give the Highlanders a commanding 13-3 lead.

That looked to be the end of the drama for the half until Ngatai's yellow card following the collision with Dixon, as the Chiefs headed into the break down to 14 men.

Sniffing a chance to capitalise the Highlanders showed impressive patience on attack at the start of the second half, with darts from Ben Smith and Patrick Osborne culminating with the ball going wide through the hands of Ash Dixon and Josh Hohneck before Naholo finished in the corner.

Sopoaga couldn't convert but the Highlanders were firmly in control up 18-3. 

Ngatai returned from his stint in the bin and made an instant impact with a line break, starting an attack that finished with James Lowe breaking into space before delivering the final pass to Cruden as he ran down the touchline to finish in the corner.

The fly-half missed the conversion from out wide before the Highlanders came back on the attack once more and displayed truly brilliant composure close to the Chiefs line.

Phase after phase were recycled from five metres out before spotting the overlap out wide the ball was flung from left to right to give Naholo the space he needed to score his second try.

Matters got worse for the Chiefs with a yellow card to Maama Vaipulu for cynical play as Sopoaga's penalty hammered home the result for the Highlanders up 26-8.

Young Chiefs replacement wing Sam Vaka did come off the bench to score his Super Rugby try on debut to give the home supporters something to cheer, but the result was long gone.

The final highlight was a try-saving tackle for Anton Lienert-Brown to bundle Naholo into touch and deny him a hat-trick, although the All Blacks winger had already done the damage on an impressive return.

The scorers:

For Chiefs:
Tries: Cruden, Vaka
Pen: Cruden
Yellow Cards: Ngatai, Vaipulu

For Highlanders:
Tries: Leinert-Brown, Naholo 2
Cons: Banks
Pens: Sopoaga 3

Chiefs: 15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Toni Pulu, 13 Seta Tamanivalu, 12 Charlie Ngatai, 11 James Lowe, 10 Aaron Cruden, 9 Brad Weber, 8 Michael Leitch, 7 Sam Cane, 6 Taleni Seu, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Dominic Bird, 3 Hiroshi Yamashita, 2 Hika Elliot, 1 Mitchell Graham 
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

Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Matt Faddes, 12 Malakai Fekitoa, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 Dan Pryor, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Alex Ainley, 4 Tom Franklin, 3 Josh Hohneck, 2 Ash Dixon, 1 Dan Lienert-Brown
Replacements: 16 Greg Plesants-Tate, 17 Aki Seiuli, 18 Siosiua Halanukonuka, 19 James Lentjes, 20 Gareth Evans, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Marty Banks, 23 Teihorangi Walden

Referee: Angus Gardner
Assistant Referees: Chris Pollock, Angus Mabey
TMO: Shane McDermott