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The Western Stormers square off against the Golden Lions in a blockbuster South African derby while Crusaders prop Wyatt Crockett sets a match record in Super Rugby this weekend.
The Canterbury Crusaders and Stormers are the only unbeaten sides remaining going into round eight of the competition, which next year will revert to a 15-team format from its current 18.
The fallout from governing body SANZAAR’s announcement to axe three teams — two from South Africa and one from Australia — has dominated the past week.
Threatened franchise Western Force have launched legal action against Australian rugby chiefs.
Seven-times champion Crusaders ease back into the fray following a bye by hosting the Sunwolves who won their first match of the season last week.
All Blacks captain Kieran Read is back for his first outing of the season having recovered from wrist surgery.
And the match will be a significant milestone for fellow All Black Crockett as he makes a record 176th appearance in Super Rugby.
The 34-year-old will overtake former All Black Keven Mealamu’s record of 175.
SANZAAR chief Andy Marinos described Crockett’s record as “a tremendous achievement for a player who is at the coal face of one of the hardest and most competitive rugby competitions in the world”.
The Crusaders feel comfortable enough to make a raft of changes to the side that beat the Waratahs a fortnight ago. Just five players of their 23 remain in the same position
In the showdown between the top two South African sides, the Stormers are brimming with confidence after inflicting the first loss of the season on the Waikato Chiefs last week while the Lions are coming off a bye.
Lions coach Johan Ackermann believes the week off came at the right time as it allowed several key players including Rohan Janse van Rensburg, Ruan Ackermann, and Elton Jantjies to get over niggling injuries.
The Stormers “are the team to beat in South Africa and it’s going to take something special to get the better of them at Newlands,” Ackermann said.
“They’re playing an exciting brand of rugby and their skill levels are extremely high so it’s going to be a huge challenge going there.”
The Stormers, though, have injury woes after the punishing outing against the Chiefs with flanker Cobus Wiese and locks Pieter-Steph du Toit and Eben Etzebeth unable to train early in the week.
They are also in a tough sequence of matches with home games against the Chiefs and Lions to be followed by a trip to New Zealand to face the Crusaders, Otago Highlanders and Wellington Hurricanes.
The Chiefs, looking to get their season back on track, are in Bloemfontein to face a Central Cheetahs side desperate to prove they deserve to survive the Super Rugby culling process.
“These are challenging and uncertain times,” the Cheetahs said in a statement this week.
“We strongly believe that through an honest and fair process we stand a strong chance of retaining our Super Rugby status.”
The defending champion Wellington Hurricanes are in Auckland to face a Blues side which has Sonny Bill Williams starting in a new unique jersey which does not feature the logo of team sponsor Bank of New Zealand (BNZ) to conform with his Muslim beliefs.
But Williams has agreed to wear, instead, the logo of child health service Plunket whose principal sponsor is the BNZ.
In the remaining matches, top Australian side ACT Brumbies play the struggling Melbourne Rebels, who along with Western Force are under threat of being kicked out of the 2018 competition.
Elsewhere, the Queensland Reds are at home to the Southern Kings and the Northern Bulls return to South Africa after an unsuccessful road trip to host the Jaguares.
Waisake Naholo bagged a double on his return to Super Rugby as the Otago Highlanders downed the Waikato Chiefs 26-13, allowing the Canterbury Crusaders to takeover the competition leadership.
Naholo, the top try-scorer last year but out of action this season since he suffered a leg injury in the opening round, touched down twice in the second half as the defending champions confirmed they are again serious contenders.
The Crusaders, courtesy of their 38-5 win over the Queensland Reds on Friday, lead the competition on points differential over the Chiefs and have a game in hand.
The Highlanders, who face the Crusaders next weekend, have lost three of 10 games but lie just five points behind the leaders and 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 Auckland Blues, Wellington Hurricanes and Coastal Sharks.
“For one reason or another the passes weren’t sticking. We have to be better, it’s disappointing,” Chiefs captain Sam Cane said.
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 18-8.
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.
South Africa’s Western Stormers and two-time New Zealand winners Waikato Chiefs pushed their Super Rugby title claims this weekend as holders Otago Highlanders became the Queensland Reds first victims of the season.
The Stormers extended their record to 5-1 this year with a 46-19 triumph over Japan’s win-less Sunwolves in Cape Town, while the Chiefs squeezed home 29-23 over the Auckland Blues in their New Zealand derby in Hamilton.
Australia’s Reds clung on for their first victory of the season and ended Otago’s five-match winning sequence with a 28-27 win in Brisbane.
Seven-time champions Canterbury Crusaders produced a great escape to knock over the hapless Western Force 20-19 in Perth, while winger Julian Savea scored a hat-trick of tries in the Hurricanes 40-22 victory over Argentina’s Jaguares in Wellington.
The Golden Lions replaced fellow South African side Coastal Sharks as Africa 2 conference leaders with a 24-9 win in Durban and the Northern Bulls tossed aside the inept Southern Kings 38-6 in Port Elizabeth.
Australian trio ACT Brumbies, Melbourne Rebels and NSW Waratahs along with South Africa’s Central Cheetahs all had this weekend off.
The Sunwolves, now without a win in six games in their debut Super Rugby campaign, were reduced to 14 men by the red-carding of lock Timothy Bond.
Fly-half Jean-Luc du Plessis displayed exceptional footwork to score the Stormers seventh and final try to seal a bonus point.
The Chiefs had to dig deep to avoid an upset loss to the Blues in a frantic New Zealand derby.
Waikato scored five tries to two but the game was in the balance until the dying minutes, when All Black lock Brodie Retallick’s try capped a superb return from injury.
The result takes the Chiefs winning streak to five matches, cementing their place at the top of the New Zealand conference and confirming their status as the form team of this year’s competition.
In Brisbane, the Reds outplayed the Highlanders in the first half to lead 22-6 and extended the advantage to 28-6, but it was all hands to the pump for much of the second half as the Kiwi champions roared back to just miss out.
It was the Reds’ sixth straight win at home over the Highlanders.
The Crusaders were the dominant side for most of their match with the Force, but found themselves staring down the barrel of a shock defeat when they trailed 19-13 with just two minutes of play remaining against a side with only one win from its previous six outings.
But just when all seemed almost lost Jordan Taufua barged over close to the posts for Richie Mo’unga to convert and snatch the lead.
In Wellington, Savea bounced back from public humiliation over his lack of fitness with a swag of tries for the Hurricanes.
In the first outing for the All Blacks’ star after being put on an intensive fitness regime two weeks ago he showed signs of his blockbusting best, breaking the game open with a touchdown double just on halftime.
The Hurricanes outscored the Jaguares six tries to three, with the bonus-point try scored by replacement prop Ben May on fulltime.
The Lions survived intense early pressure to lead 18-6 at half-time in a match against the Sharks that produced virtually no momentum due to countless reset scrums, penalties and unforced errors.
The Bulls kept the Kings scoreless when reduced to 13 men and ultimately cantered home after having lock RG Snyman and tighthead prop Marcel van der Merwe sin-binned for professional fouls during the first half.
Defending champions Otago Highlanders held off a storming comeback from the New South Wales Waratahs to win a high-scoring SuperRugby game 30-26 in Sydney on Friday.
The Highlanders powered to a 30-0 lead after 55 minutes but they had to withstand a withering fightback from the home side, who pulled to within four points with seven minutes left.
But Otago regrouped and held on to their lead to go to the top of the New Zealand conference midway through the fourth round of the five-nation tournament, while the 2014 champions fell to their second loss in three matches.
The Highlanders, who eliminated the Waratahs 35-17 in last year’s semi-finals, have now beaten the Sydneysiders in four of their last five encounters.
Ryan Tongia scored the opening try in the 11th minute and Liam Squire scored off a dropped Waratahs ball 18 minutes later.
Flanker Elliot Dixon scored the first of his two tries off a kick from winger Matt Faddes to have the Highlanders leading 22-0 at half-time with fly-half Lima Sopoaga contributing two conversions and a penalty.
Dixon scored again off a high kick seven minutes after the resumption and a Sopoaga drop kick pushed the Highlanders out to 30-0 before the Waratahs sprung into action.
The Waratahs rattled on 26 points in 17 minutes to give their fans hope of a stirring come-from-behind victory.
Jed Holloway, a half-time replacement, scored a hat-trick of tries with another replacement Tom Robertson scoring a fourth try.
Wallaby Kurtley Beale converted three of the tries.
But the Highlanders steadied and repulsed the Waratahs comeback to take home the points.
“It’s back to the drawing board,” said Waratahs captain Michael Hooper ahead of their next match against the Queensland Reds in Brisbane.
Defending champions the Otago Highlanders slumped to a 33-31 loss against the unfancied Auckland Blues as the newly expanded Super Rugby competition opened with a shock result on Friday.
The Blues, now coached by All Blacks legend Tana Umaga, showed the Highlanders they could not expect to fly under the radar to the title like last year.
In an entertaining match in which the lead changed hands four times, the Highlanders stage a late comeback but lacked the intensity of their New Zealand rivals.
“They played really well and deserved to win, we’ve got to do better,” said captain Ben Smith, whose two-try effort made him the Highlanders’ stand-out player.
This year’s revamped, 18-team competition is expanding its horizons with new sides from Japan and Argentina, but the Blues are intent on turning back the clock to the days when they were a genuine force.
They won the last of their three titles in 2003 but have now sent a message that under Umaga they are a far more potent threat than the side that finished second last in 2015.
“We had a big emphasis on starting well and you can’t get much bigger than beating the defending champions,” said fly-half Ihaia West, who landed seven kicks to play a major part in the win.
“We’ve got a pretty young squad this year, lots of new faces and they gave it their all.”
The Blues showed attacking intent early, moving the ball around and earning a penalty, only for West to send his kick wide.
It fell to Smith to score the first points of the season, with the All Blacks fullback stretching out from a tackle to plant the ball over the tryline.
West made amends for his missed penalty when he set up Melani Nanai’s try in the 17th minute by chipping to Tevita Li, who released the winger for his score.
Powerful young flanker Blake Gibson scored the Blues’ second five-pointer in the 25th minute, bulldozing past four defenders.
Debutant centre Teihorangi Walden hit back immediately for the Highlanders, slipping through a hole in the defence, before Waisake Naholo sent them into the break 24-20 up.
After a helter-skelter first half, the second began as an arm wrestle, with two Blues penalties putting the Aucklanders ahead 26-24 with 20 minutes to go.
Patrick Tuipulotu then sealed it with the Blues’ third try just after Highlander Patrick Osborne was sin binned.
But the final minutes were tense after Smith gave the Highlanders hope with a converted try from a move that began deep within his own half to make it 33-31.
“It’s tough, it’s never not tough,” Smith said as he digested the loss.
The Highlanders band of rejects cemented their fairytale season with the Super 15 crown when they outplayed the more illustrious Wellington Hurricanes 21-14 in a frenetic final on Saturday.
The historic first title for the Highlanders was only the fifth time in the 20-year history of Super rugby that the home team has been beaten in the final of the southern hemisphere club competition.
The composite team from the south, with co-captain Ben Smith the only member born in the Highlanders catchment area, ventured north to the Hurricanes Westpac Stadium and scored two tries to one.
But while the Highlanders, with few known names, had been largely written off at the start of the season, scrum-half Aaron Smith said they always had faith in themselves.
“No one believed in us and I said to the boys ‘earn the right to be called champions’ and we did it,” Smith said.
“We’re just down south being humble and doing our thing. We’ve done it. We’ve proved everyone wrong.”
The Hurricanes, pacesetters throughout the year, fell at the final hurdle, despite having a very vocal home crowd support, and captain Conrad Smith said they had no excuses.
“We met a Highlanders side that played out of their skin. I take my hat off to them, they deserve to be victorious,” he said.
From the opening three minutes of helter-skelter rugby, which ended with a penalty to Lima Sopoaga to open the scoring for the Highlanders, to a final drop goal by Marty Banks, the game was played at a relentless pace.
It was also packed with emotion, with neither side having previously won the championship.
The Hurricanes were also bidding farewell to a band of senior players including All Blacks Conrad Smith, Ma’a Nonu, Ben Franks and Jeremy Thrush.
They played with the initials JC stitched on their jerseys in memory of former teammate Jerry Collins who was recently killed in a car accident in France.
Fielding 10 players with Test experience, the Hurricanes dominated territory and possession only to be outplayed by a Highlanders unit, with only three experienced All Blacks, who belied their reputation as a team of unwanted nobodies.
Sopoaga moved to the Highlanders from Wellington to escape the shadow of Beauden Barrett, and Banks, who sealed the outcome at the end when the ‘Canes had closed to within four points, is another Hurricanes reject.
Elliot Dixon, who scored a crucial try on half-time to put the Highlanders ahead 13-5, joined the franchise from Canterbury where the Crusaders were stacked with All Blacks loose forwards.
Dixon again featured after the resumption of play when he drew two defenders to put Waisake Naholo over. Naholo, the top try scorer in the competition this year, signed up for the Hurricanes after being rejected by the Auckland Blues.
Aaron Smith, who engineered the victory with his astute direction of play, is another Highlander who has moved south from Hurricanes territory.
Ma’a Nonu scored the Hurricanes sole try in the 35th minute but after that they were never to breach the Highlanders defence again, with Barrett providing the rest of their points from three penalties.
Wellington Hurricanes loose forward Ardie Savea has been ruled out of the Super Rugby final against the Otago Highlanders after failing to recover from knee injury and been replaced by Callum Gibbins.
The openside flanker sustained the injury last week in the 29-9 semi-final victory over the ACT Brumbies.
Savea had been bracketed with Gibbins by coachChris Boyd and given until the last possible minute to prove his fitness before the final later on Saturday.
Lock Mark Abbott, who had been bracketed with Gibbins in the replacements, will remain on the bench with the loose forward moving into the starting side.
The Wellington Hurricanes-Otago Highlanders Super 15 final on Saturday “is going to be brutal” and could damage New Zealand’s World Cup strength, according to All Blacks coach Steve Hansen.
But he admits he wouldn’t have it any other way with southern hemisphere club rugbysupremacy at stake.
The Hurricanes, with 12 current All Blacks in their squad, compared to five with the Highlanders, have been installed as favourites by the pragmatists for the sold-out game in Wellington.
Rugby romantics, however, are backing the Highlanders who field a band of rugbynobodies with a never-say-die attitude.
In what will be an emotional encounter — neither side has previously won the title — several senior players, including Hurricanes figureheads Conrad Smith and Ma’a Nonu, will be playing their last Super Rugby match.
“It’s going to be a real brutal game,” said Hansen, whose finals’ experience as assistant coach of the champion Canterbury Crusaders in 2000 fuels his trepidation about the risk of injury to key All Blacks ahead of the World Cup beginning in September.
“Whilst I’m excited about it being two New Zealand teams, there is a little bit of holding your breath because you don’t want any of those young men to get injured — or anyone for that matter — but not the 17 because they are earmarked to come in and play some of these Test matches that we’ve got to play before we go to the World Cup.
“But watching the two teams play, it’s going to be brutal.
“There’s no way you can expect anyone to hold back. You can’t. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for both teams. The emotion of it will play a big part.”
The last two teams standing were the best-performing attacking sides in the regular season with the Hurricanes heading the try-scoring list with 62, one more than the Highlanders.
The Highlanders have since conceded only three tries as they outsmarted Waikato Chiefs and NSW Waratahs in the playoffs.
Defence coach Scott McLeod said they had a “big day” on Tuesday working on a strategy to counter the Hurricanes.
“They’ve got threats across the park. You give them too much space and they will make the most of that with their running, offloading and continuity play. So we need to be able to shut that all down,” said McLeod.
The Hurricanes, meanwhile, are sweating on the fitness of Ardie Savea, a central figure in their attacking drive, who is suffering from a leg injury and has been bracketed with Callum Gibbins for the seven jersey.
The winner will be the eighth franchise to wear the Super Rugby crown in the 20-year history of the tournament and the fourth from New Zealand following the Canterbury Crusaders (seven championships), the Auckland Blues (three) and Waikato Chiefs (two).
Three Australian sides have claimed the title — the ACT Brumbies (two), the NSW Waratahs (one) and Queensland Reds (one). The Northern Bulls (three) are the only winners from South Africa.
The Wellington Hurricanes and Otago Highlanders have become the ugly duckling stories of New Zealand rugby after defying their critics to reach the Super 15 final.
The only New Zealand sides never to have won the Super crown started this season as two of the most unfancied outfits.
But they emerged from the regular season as the top two performers and then comprehensively downed the ACT Brumbies and NSW Waratahs in the Super semi-finals on Saturday.
The Hurricanes and Highlanders both specialised in positive, attacking rugby with impressive averages of nearly four tries and 30 points per game.
The pace-setting Hurricanes, whose only previous final appearance was a loss to the Canterbury Crusaders in 2006, won the right to host the final when they beat the two-times champion Brumbies 29-9 in Wellington.
In Sydney, the Highlanders crushed the Wallaby-laden Waratahs 35-17 to book a final berth for the first time since their lone 1999 appearance when they were also beaten by the Crusaders.
The Hurricanes-Highlanders showdown ensures the southern hemisphere championship will have a first-time titleholder, and for the fifth time in the 20-year history of the tournament it will be an all-New Zealand affair.
It was far from faultless rugby by the Hurricanes but with a backline including All Blacks Ma’a Nonu, Conrad Smith, Julian Savea and rising new star Nehe Milner-Skudder, coach Chris Boyd said it was worth taking risks.
“If you play a high risk and reward game you’ve got to expect you will make mistakes,” he said, promising the same approach in the final.
“I don’t suspect we’ll change anything actually. We are just happy that we can go to the last dance and we do it in our own hall.”
The only issues facing the Hurricanes are the fitness of bruising flanker Ardie Savea, who was forced from the field with a knee injury after 50 minutes and ongoing hamstring problems which limited Milner-Skudder to the first half.
Fly-half Beauden Barrett gave up the kicking duties in the second half because of hip pain which he said had hampered him for years.
Fuelled by the emotion of losing former teammate Jerry Collins in a car accident three weeks ago, and with the packed stadium chanting “Jerry, Jerry, Jerry”, the Hurricanes had control of the Brumbies after five minutes.
They scored four tries, two in each half while restricting the Brumbies to a trio of penalties.
For Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph, the post-match debrief after the Waratahs clash had the familiarity of a well-worn record. How could a team with three All Blacks romp home against the defending champions who fielded 13 interntionals?
“You can’t say the same story every week,” he said.
“It still surprises me. In many ways it seems that we’ve fooled the rugby community, they still don’t quite believe in us, what else can these guys do?”
One of Highlanders’ biggest assets has been fitness, making them one of the best finishing sides in the competition.
When they trailed the Waratahs 17-15 after 50 minutes, they stepped up several gears to score 20 unanswered points.
Their cause was helped by a contentious penalty try when Jacques Potgieter was given a yellow card for a swinging arm tackle on Patrick Osborne near the Waratahs try-line.
But by that stage the game had already become one-way traffic and the Waratahs never looked like catching up
The well drilled Otago Highlanders upset defending champions NSW Waratahs 35-17 to set up an all New Zealand Super Rugby final in Sydney on Saturday.
The Highlanders executed their game plan to perfection to throw the Waratahs out of their playing rhythm, scoring score five tries to one after leading 15-14 at half-time.
Otago will face competition favourites Wellington Hurricanes in the final next weekend after the Hurricanes knocked out the other remaining Australian side ACT Brumbies 29-9 earlier in Wellington.
It will be the first all Kiwi Super Rugby final since 2006 when the Canterbury Crusaders beat the Hurricanes 19-12.
The Highlanders dictated play with their tactical kicking and structured forward play to register their first win in Sydney in eight years.
While Otago were full value for their win, the out-of-sorts Waratahs contributed to their downfall with shoddy handling and 18 turnovers in one of their worst performances of the season.
The Highlanders trailed the Waratahs 17-15 after 50 minutes, but the Kiwis scored 20 unanswered points leaving them convincing winners.
Otago’s tries were scored by impressive scrum-half Aaron Smith, Richard Buckman, Waisake Naholo and Patrick Osborne, while South African referee Craig Joubert ruled a contentious penalty try when Jacques Potgieter was given a yellow card for a swinging arm in a tackle on Osborne near the Waratahs try-line.
Fly-half Lima Sopoaga kicked two conversions, a penalty goal and a drop goal.
The Waratahs scored their only try through winger Rob Horne in the 11th minute and fly-half Bernard Foley landed four penalties.
Aaron Smith snapped up a loose pass from Wycliff Palu off the back of a Waratah scrum win to score Otago’s first try and centre Richard Buckman bounced out of a couple of tackles to score late in the opening half.
Two of Otago’s tries came off kicks with winger Waisake Naholo moving off his own chip kick and winger Osborne latching on to Sopoaga’s kick for the corner to score.
“We got it right tonight and we have a big challenge ahead of us next week,” Otago skipper Ben Smith said.
“Our forward pack is way under-rated, they have big tickers and are skillful players and every week you know what you’re getting from them.
“Aaron Smith turned them around in the dewy conditions to keep the ball behind the Waratahs.”
Waratahs skipper Dave Dennis said the Highlanders were tactically sound.
“We got beaten by a better team, they kicked very well tactically and put us under a lot of pressure and we put ourselves under pressure as well and didn’t get much rhythm in the game.”
Australia’s ACT Brumbies will face runaway league leaders Wellington Hurricanes while defending champions NSW Waratahs have home advantage over the Otago Highlanders in next weekend’s Super Rugby semi-finals.
The Brumbies, twice championship winners, ended South African hopes of claiming the southern hemisphere provincial title with a 39-19 win over the Western Stormers in Cape Town on Saturday.
It is the first time since 2003 that a South African side has missed out on the last four and five years since the last team from the republic, Northern Bulls, won the championship.
The Waratahs, who along with the Hurricanes skipped the opening play-off round, will tackle the Highlanders in Sydney after Otago ended the Waikato Chiefs’ quest for a third title in a 24-14 victory in Dunedin.
Both the Hurricanes and Highlanders have yet to win the Super Rugby title in the 19 years of the competition.
The Waratahs have won 13 of their 19 encounters with the Highlanders, but lost to the Kiwi side 26-19 in round five this season in Dunedin.
The Hurricanes, who finished 14 points clear at the top of the regular season standings, have lost their last four meetings with the Brumbies, including two in Wellington, the venue for this week’s semi-final.
Winger Joe Tomane scored a hat-trick of tries in the Brumbies’ comprehensive win over the Stormers, wreaking havoc in the opening half, crossing for three tries within 25 minutes of the kick-off.
Prop Scott Sio barged over for a fourth try for the Australian outfit and the visitors led 24-6 at half-time.
The South Africans fared better early in the second half and twice got within eight points, but never looked like snatching victory.
No. 8 Ita Vaea and fullback Jesse Mogg also crossed the try-line for the Brumbies and fly-half Christian Lealiifano kicked three conversions and a penalty.
Mogg scored when his side were two men short after winger Henry Speight was red-carded for a dangerous tackle and flanker Scott Fardy yellow-carded for a professional foul.
Speight’s chances of playing against the Hurricanes may depend on a SANZAR judiciary hearing this week.
It was an intensely physical encounter with not only a place in the semis on the line but also a last chance to impress the All Blacks’ selectors ahead of the naming of a 40-man squad for next month’s Rugby Championship.
Highlanders wing Waisake Naholo, widely expected to earn his All Blacks call up, did his chances no harm with two tries, both engineered by Aaron Smith going to the short side from the back of a scrum.
The Chiefs, who lost twice to the Highlanders in the regular season, seized the lead nearing half-time when a third Andrew Horrell penalty have them a 9-8 lead at the turn.
But Naholo’s second try soon after the resumption returned the initiative to the Highlanders and they never fell behind again as they entered the southern hemisphere championship semi-finals for the first time since 2002.
The Otago Highlanders demolished the Coastal Sharks 48-15 on Friday with a dominant seven-try performance that gives their play-off chances a huge boost.
Buoyed by the return of All Black trio Ben Smith, Malakai Fekitoa and Aaron Smith, the Highlanders’ slick passing game saw them run away with the game in the second half.
The bonus-point victory took the New Zealanders’ record to seven wins from 10 matches, consolidating their spot in the top six as a clutch of rivals breathe down their neck.
It was the fourth straight defeat for the Sharks, leaving their finals hopes hanging after the first match of a tough five-week New Zealand-Australia road trip.
“It’s quite hard to see any positives at this stage,” captain Marco Wentzel said.
“We have to look at the negatives first and fix the problems then take it from there. It’s a tough tour, it doesn’t get any easier.”
The Highlanders’ high-tempo passing game was rewarded with a try after just four minutes when flanker Gareth Evans shrugged off Odwa Ndungane’s tackle to cross in the left corner.
There should have been another 15 minutes later after sustained pressure from the Highlanders which was halted by desperate defence from the Sharks.
The South Africans finally gained some momentum with their line out, using their forwards to attack up the middle and set up prop Tendai Mtawarira for a try to level the scores at 10-10.
But it was a short-lived reprieve as Waisake Naholo and Patrick Osborne hit back for the Highlanders with two tries in three minutes to make it 24-10 at the break.
Fly-half Lima Sopoaga orchestrated both tries, the first with a pinpoint chip kick to the corner the second with a beautifully timed pass that put Osborne into space.
The Sharks came out hard after the restart but were held up over the line twice in the first five minutes before Highlanders’ lock Mark Reddish scored their fourth try.
Reddish snuck up alongside Conrad Hoffmann as he tried to shepherd the ball out of the Sharks’ in-goal area, throwing out a hand and touching down for five points.
Aaron Smith followed up with another try two minutes later off the back of a break from Richard Buckman, blowing out the score to 36-10.
Brendon Edmonds heaped on more pain for the visitors as the Highlanders forced a turnover near their own line then took the ball through nine phases of play before scoring their sixth try.
Bismarck du Plessis managed a consolation try for the Sharks but the Highlanders were still not done, with Elliot Dixon making it seven to complete the rout.