Chiefs beat Highlanders in Super Rugby’s NZ season opener

DUNEDIN, New Zealand (AP) Winger James Lowe scored two intercept tries in the first half to set the Chiefs on course to a 24-15 win over the Highlanders in a crucial New Zealand derby in the first round of Super Rugby.

The Dunedin-based Highlanders held significant advantages of territory and possession in both halves but the Chiefs used an intense and pressing defense to force errors which led to Lowe’s double before halftime.

Lowe’s first try came from a careless back pass by All Blacks center Malakai Fekitoa and his second came from a loose pass by winger Waisake Naholo, allowing the Chiefs to take a 14-9 lead to halftime against the run of play.

A slick lineout move led to a try by hooker Hika Elliot in the 46th minute which clinched victory. Elliot threw to scrumhalf Tawera Kerr-Barlow at the front of the lineout, Kerr-Barlow quickly returned the ball to Elliot and he scrambled down the touch line for a try that gave the Chiefs a 21-9 lead.

The Highlanders were kept in the match by a series of penalties from flyhalf Lima Sopoaga – five in total – and the penalty count against the Chiefs accelerated in the late stages of the match as they tired and lost discipline. But the Highlanders couldn’t find a way to cross the tryline and the Chiefs will go home to Hamilton with their first win in their last six matches against the Highlanders in Dunedin.

”We knew it was going to be a tough start,” Chiefs captain Aaron Cruden said. ”It was always going to be a big test for us. I thought our guys who were debuting really stood up today and it was a polished team performance.”

The Chiefs showed composure as they soaked up pressure from the Highlanders. The match was the first between New Zealand teams in this year’s tournament and, as the New Zealand conference is expected to be the strongest in the competition, the Chiefs win gave the first inkling of the relative standings.

The Highlanders were the stronger team for long periods but lacked discipline in attack which led to Lowe’s tries in the 10th and 17th minutes. A head injury to All Blacks fullback Ben Smith also raised concerns for the Highlanders.

”Tonight we just didn’t execute. We were right the hunt but just couldn’t get over the line,” Highlanders stand-in captain Sopoaga said. ”Skill execution let us down.

”It was maybe just a bit of nerves, maybe we were a bit too keen. We’ll debrief that over the weekend and come Monday we’ll be straight back into it.”

On Thursday, teenage center Reiko Ioane scored three tries – the first hat trick by a Blues player in four years – as the Auckland-based Blues beat the Melbourne Rebels 56-18.

The Queensland Reds were hosting the Sharks later Friday in Brisbane.