Highlanders stun Chiefs
Injuries prove costly for home side
Last Updated: 25/02/12 8:41am
The Chiefs were left to rue a second-half collapse as they slipped to a 23-19 defeat to the Highlanders.
The home side had impressed in the first half - with the likes of Hika Elliot, Fritz Lee, Brendon Leonard, Richard Kahui and Sonny Bill Williams to the fore.
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden, making his debut after joining from the Hurricanes, had also impressed as he pulled the strings for the Chiefs.
However having opened up a 10-point lead after 50 minutes - through 14 points from Cruden and a try from Lelia Masaga - the Chiefs were left rocking as the Highlanders hit back.
The Chiefs' cause was not helped by injuries to Ben Afeaki, Masaga and Leonard. Prop Afeaki suffered a suspected broken right forearm, Masaga twisted his knee, while No.9 Leonard damaged his left hamstring.
And the Highlanders took full advantage as Aaron Smith and Phil Burleigh both crossed in the final 20 minutes, while Super Rugby debutant Chris Noakes added 13 points.
Noakes had kicked two penalties to one from Cruden in the opening exchanges before Masaga gave the Chiefs a lead they would never lose.
A mistake from All Blacks scrum-half Jimmy Cowan gave the Chiefs the chance to counter - and the Waikato-based franchise never need a second invitation as quick hands and recycling created the gap for Masaga to power over. Cruden coverted.
Noakes landed another three-pointer to cut the deficit, only for Cruden to respond with two penalties of his own before the break - with both sides struggling to adapt to the refereeing of the breakdown.
A fifth successful shot at goal from Cruden saw the Chiefs move 19-9 up with a half-hour left to play.
The loss of Leonard to a nasty hamstring injury, though, hit the hosts hard - and the Highlanders took full advantage.
A superb running-line and off-load from Tamati Ellison was finished off brilliantly by Smith to give the visitors hope, with Noakes converting to cut the deficit to three.
And worse was to follow for the Chiefs as Cruden's clearance was charged down by Jason Rutledge, with Burleigh finishing off. Noakes converted.
The Chiefs spurned two kickable efforts at goal to go for broke and they would regret the decision as they could not breach the defence.
And they were dealt a further blow as prop Toby Smith hobbled off with a calf injury, leaving the game to finish with uncontested scrums.