All Blacks halfback Aaron Smith’s last minute try gives the Highlanders a 30-27 season opening win over the Chiefs in Hamilton.
Reduced to 14 men, the Highlanders refused to roll over in the opening game of Super Rugby in Hamilton.
The Highlanders played with a man short for the final 15 minutes with replacement centre Sio Tomkinson sent off for a dangerous head high tackle on Brodie Retallick.
Tomkinson appeared to be unlucky as Retallick ducked into the tackle, which referee Glen Jackson ruled was also principally a shoulder charge after several television replays.
Lock Pari Pari Parkinson and replacement flanker Shannon Frizell also scored tries for the Highlanders, who never let the Chiefs get too far ahead with the unerring boot of first five Josh Ioane adding 15 points.
Winger Etene Nanai-Seturo scored two tries for the Chiefs, who controlled much of the game only to be undone by the Highlanders’ replacements bench adding some much-needed impetus for the final quarter.
Nanai-Seturo crossed once in each half for the home side, while Canadian international number eight Tyler Ardron and tighthead prop Angus Ta’avao also scored tries.
Halfback Brad Weber slotted two conversions and Stephen Donald added a penalty.
The Chiefs had looked the most dangerous for the entire game, with All Blacks centre Anton Lienert-Brown’s ability to identify and exploit space evident.
Lienert-Brown set up two of the Chiefs’ first half tries with the inside centre setting free winger Bailyn Sullivan, whose run and chip kick ahead set up Ta’avao’s try.
He also gave hooker Nathan Harris a superb pass that allowed Nanai-Seturo the narrowest of margins on the touchline which he tip-toed down to give the home side a 19-7 lead just before half-time.
Ioane, who had slotted his first penalty before the break added a second just afterwards to narrow the gap to six points, before Nanai-Seturo grabbed his second try following a clever cross-kick from first five Orbyn Leger.
The Highlanders’ bench then proved the difference with Frizell proving a real handful with his ability to break tackles and get passes away in contact.
The 35-year-old Donald, who was only awarded a contract on Monday to replace the injured Tiaan Falcon, gave the Chiefs a 27-23 lead after Tomkinson was sent off before the Highlanders controlled the rest of the game.
“I didn’t really see it properly on the big screen but the ref’s decision is final and I thought we adjusted well when Sio was sent off to scrape home,” Highlander’s Ben Smith said.
“It’s just being smart with your plans and we couldn’t send to many numbers in or we’d be short in other areas so we just had to be smart there.”