THE HIGHLANDERS have shown great grit and determination to record a come-from-behind 23-19 victory over the Chiefs in Hamilton tonight.
Trailing 19-9 after 60 minutes, the Jamie Joseph-coached side looked to be staring down the barrel of defeat at Waikato Stadium.
But the Chiefs lost their composure and suffered a rash of injuries in the final quarter and the visitors pounced, scoring two tries to record an upset victory.
It was a win that was built on the same grit, character and spirit which saw the side turn heads in 2011.
Blindside flanker Adam Thomson was at his industrious best around the park and also won a huge amount of lineout ball, while centre Tamati Ellison – who only arrived in New Zealand on Thursday night after finishing his playing commitments in Japan – was all class in the midfield, turning in a man-of-the-match performance.
Although not spectacular, first five Chris Noakes also did what was asked of him, directing traffic well, kicking intelligently for territory and slotting all five shots at goal.
Not only did the Chiefs suffer a blow on the scoreboard, but four players – props Ben Afeaki (wrist) and Toby Smith (calf), halfback Brendon Leonard (hamstring) and wing Lelia Masaga (knee) – were forced to leave the field with what appeared to be serious injuries.
Both teams were penalised heavily at the breakdown in the first half by referee Jonathon White.
Despite dominating possession and territory and having a rock-steady scrum during that period, the Highlanders looked disjointed.
That was hardly surprising given crucial combinations had little time to gel in the pre-season due to the side’s heavy injury toll.
The Highlanders also failed to look after the ball, with breakdown turnovers and handling errors proving costly.
Still, two penalty goals by Noakes saw them establish a 6-3 lead early in the match.
However, the Chiefs moved in front with a Masaga try after some sloppy play by the Highlanders.
A no-look pass to no-one from Highlanders halfback Jimmy Cowan allowed the Chiefs to pounce on the loose ball. It was scooped up by lock Brodie Retallick and quickly moved out wide to first five Aaron Cruden, who broke down the far touchline and linked up with centre Richard Kahui.
One Sonny Bill Williams charge later and the ball was given to Masaga, who showed enough strength to dot down in the tackle of Highlanders lock Nick Crosswell.
Another Noakes penalty closed the margin to one point, but two strikes from Cruden allowed the hosts to take a deserved 16-9 lead into the halftime break.
Cruden kicked his fourth penalty in the 49th minute to move his side 10 points clear.
But all of a sudden, Chiefs players began dropping like flies as injuries set in, and the Highlanders capitalised as the game began to loosen up.
Thomson and Ellison combined to put replacement halfback Aaron Smith over for a try, and second five Phil Burleigh put them in front when he scored after replacement hooker Jason Rutledge charged down a Cruden clearing kick.
The Highlanders went into shutdown mode from there, slowing down play and keeping the ball close to the ruck as they looked to wind the clock down.
The Chiefs had opportunities at the death, but the Highlanders’ defence held on to secure an unlikely victory.
Highlanders 23 (Tries: Aaron Smith, Phil Burleigh; Cons: Chris Noakes (2); Pens: Noakes (3))
Chiefs 19 (Try: Lelia Masaga; Con: Aaron Cruden; Pens: Cruden (4))
Halftime: 16-9 Chiefs
With the series level, expect both teams to put it all on the line as they seek to win the deciding test in Sydney on Saturday night.