Naholo makes winning return as Highlanders beat Chiefs
HAMILTON, New Zealand (AP) All Blacks winger Waisake Naholo scored two tries in his first match back from a broken leg to lift defending champions the Highlanders to a 26-13 win over the Chiefs in Super Rugby on Saturday.
The win shored up the Highlanders' flagging title defense while snapping the Chiefs' seven-match winning streak to end their almost season-long reign atop the table. The Christchurch-based Crusaders, who beat the Queensland Reds 38-5 on Friday, now take over first place from the Hamilton-based Chiefs on points differential as both teams have 37 championship points.
Naholo was playing his first match Saturday since he suffered a broken leg for the second time in less than 12 months in the opening match of the season.
The Fijian-born winger broke his leg on his All Blacks debut in June last year and was in danger of missing the Rugby World Cup until he made an unexpectedly rapid recovery. He fractured the same leg in February and has again returned faster than expected to likely reclaim the All Blacks' right wing role for the mid-season series against Wales.
Naholo scored his first try in the 44th minute, when the Chiefs were reduced to 14 men by the sin-binning of center Charlie Ngatai, to expand the Highlanders 13-3 halftime lead to a more defensible 18-3 margin.
He touched down again in the 61st after a sustained move in which almost every Highlanders player handled the ball to make the lead safe at 23-8. Flyhalf Lima Sopoaga then enlarged his chances of an All Blacks recall, making the score 26-8 with his third penalty from five attempts at goal.
Chiefs flyhalf Aaron Cruden, likely the first choice for the All Blacks at No. 10 after the retirement of Dan Carter, scored a try and kicked a penalty while replacement Sam Vaka scored from his first touch in Super Rugby.
''Our defense hung in there,'' Highlanders captain Ben Smith said. ''The Chiefs were always going to test us with the likes of (Cruden) and Damian (McKenzie) so I'm really proud of our defense. And then I think, a bit like last week, we just made the best of our opportunities when we got them.''
Cruden opened the scoring with a penalty in the third minute but a match which was scrappy at first and marred by too much kicking tipped the Highlanders' way when prop Dan Lienert-Brown scored an opportunist try in the 29th minute. The Highlanders made a handling error in the lead-up and the Chiefs stopped, expecting a knock-on to be called. No whistle came and Lienert-Brown dashed through a gap in the defense while the Chiefs were still distracted.
Ngatai's yellow card for a dangerous tackle on Highlanders' flanker Elliot Dixon just before halftime proved crucial when Naholo scored immediately after the break to create a lead which placed the Chiefs under pressure.
Ngatai came out of the sin-bin to make a break from a scrum near his own goalline which led to Cruden's try almost 80 meters up the field and brought the match back to life. But Naholo's second try after a long and patient buildup by the Highlanders made the game safe and gave the Dunedin-based side its third win in a mid-season resurgence. It was also the Highlanders' fifth straight win over the Chiefs.
''At halftime the coaches said we'd only gone three-plus phases three times in the first half which was pretty disappointing,'' Chiefs captain Sam Cane said. ''They're a very good defensive side and you've got to be able to build pressure.
''For one reason or another the passes weren't sticking but you can't take anything away from them. They showed that resolve and determination that took them to the title last year.''
Earlier, Marcel Brache scored three tries in the first half to lead the Western Force to a 40-22 win over the Sunwolves in Tokyo.
The match at Chichibu rugby ground got off to a promising start for the hosts when Akihito Yamada ran in a try in the third minute to give the Sunwolves a brief 5-0 lead.
Brache responded two minutes later with his first try and the visitors seized the momentum and built a 26-5 lead by halftime.
Tusi Pisi and Derek Carpenter scored tries after the break to give the hosts some hope but any chance of a comeback was dashed when Angus Cottrell intercepted a pass at the halfway line and ran the distance to make it 40-15 in the 75th minute.
The Japan-based Sunwolves got their first win two weeks ago with a 36-28 win over the Jaguares.