Otago’s Aaron Smith and Phil Burleigh scored second-half tries as the Highlanders came from 10 points down to beat the Waikato Chiefs 23-19 in Super 15 rugby yesterday.
The Highlanders trailed 19-9 nine minutes into the second half, but tries by replacement scrumhalf Smith and inside center Burleigh turned the game in Otago’s favor.
Waikato flyhalf Aaron Cruden, who suffered a serious knee injury in the Rugby World Cup final in October, marked his return by kicking five goals from five attempts for 14 points for the Chiefs.
Cruden converted Lelia Masaga’s first-half try and added four penalties, but couldn’t save the Chiefs from defeat in their opening match of the season.
The match had begun with an exchange of goalkicks between Cruden and his Otago opposite Chris Noakes, following the pattern of matches in the season’s first round that have seen an unusually high number of penalties awarded by referees.
Noakes kicked the first penalty of the match after barely 30 seconds, Cruden replied in the fourth minute and Noakes added his second goal in the 11th to give the Highlanders a 6-3 lead.
Both sides attempted to play enterprising rugby — the Chiefs using their giant All Blacks midfield pairing of Richard Kahui and Sonny Bill Williams to punch holes in the Otago line. However, turnovers at crucial stages blunted attacking movements and made the goalkickers the influential figures early on.
Waikato produced the first try after 14 minutes when a pass from All Blacks scrumhalf Jimmy Cowan missed its intended recipient and was claimed by Waikato. The ball went wide to Cruden on the left flank, who cut infield and fed Kahui who in turn passed to Williams.
As the tryline loomed, the ball went to Masaga, who crashed through in midfield, carrying two tacklers over the line for Waikato’s first try of the season. Cruden converted and Otago led 10-6.
Noakes trimmed the lead with his third penalty in the 25th minute, but penalties to Cruden in the 32nd and 35th minutes allowed Otago to take a 16-9 lead to halftime. His fifth goal in the ninth minute of the second half gave Waikato a 10 point lead at 19-9.
Otago then fought their way back into the match as Waikato were steadily depleted by injuries.
Smith scored in the 61st minute when All Blacks flanker Adam Thomson, the Highlanders’ most industrious player, cracked the line and passed to Smith, who scrambled through the defense to score. Noakes converted and the Highlanders trailed 19-16.
Burleigh scored the decisive try in the 65th minute when replacement hooker Jason Rutledge charged down Cruden’s attempted clearance and the center gathered the ball to score. Noakes’ conversion — his fifth goal from as many attempts — gave Otago a slender four-point advantage.
“It turned out to be quite a big match of footy and for the boys to hang in there showed a pleasing amount of character,” Highlanders captain Jamie Mackintosh said.