Super Rugby

Super Rugby Notebook, May 7: Returning Naholo inspires Highlanders

Ben Smith paid tribute to returning hero Waisake Naholo, who marked his injury comeback with two tries as Highlanders turned on the style to end Chiefs' winning run in a 26-13 victory.  

New Zealand winger Naholo had missed the past two months with a fractured leg and he made up for lost time as the Super Rugby champions impressed in Hamilton.

Naholo touched down twice in the second half as Chiefs lost for the first time in eight matches, and captain Smith says his explosive team-mate adds an element of excitement to Highlanders.

"I think he's had that presence during the week in training," he said.

"The boys get excited when they see the ball in his hands, as does everybody else. It's great to see him back."

Force - bottom of the Australasian Group - ended a seven-match losing streak as Marcel Brache's hat-trick inspired a 40-22 win at Sunwolves, and Bernard Foley starred as Waratahs defeated Cheetahs.

In other matches, a classy second half saw Sharks overcome Hurricanes, and Blues were comfortable winners at Southern Kings.


THE LOWDOWN

Sunwolves 22-40 Force

Force's lack of confidence was evident early on as Akihito Yamada barged over for the Japanese franchise early, but American-born winger Brache took centre stage with an explosive three-try haul by the 20th minute. Sunwolves rallied and outscored the visitors three to two in the second half, Yamada going over for his second with two minutes remaining, but the damage was done.


Chiefs 13-26 Highlanders

Naholo was top try-scorer in the competition last season and he finished off Patrick Osborne's break while Charlie Ngatai was in the sin bin for Chiefs to stretch the lead to 18-3 shortly after the break. Aaron Cruden responded for the hosts, but Naholo finished a wonderful team move in the right-hand corner to leave Highlanders out of sight.


Waratahs 21-6 Cheetahs

Waratahs won for the third match and Foley was the driving force behind the win, the Australia fly-half contributing 16 points and playing a role in Reece Robinson's opening try.


Sharks 32-15 Hurricanes

Sharks, who welcomed back South Africa fly-half Pat Lambie from a 12-week lay-off with a shoulder injury, boosted their chances of making the play-offs with a classy showing in Durban. JP Pietersen scored either side of the break, while Michael Claassens and Daniel du Preez also touched down in a second half dominated by the South Africans.


Southern Kings 18-34 Blues

Struggling Kings were searching for a second win of the season and were losing by just four points with a little over 10 minutes to play. However, Billy Guyton scored Blues' fourth try to re-establish their stranglehold on the match, before Tevita Li secured a bonus point late on.


THE KEY MOMENTS

Chiefs were already 13-3 down when Ngatai was sent to the sin bin on the stroke of half-time. The centre was yellow carded for a dangerous tip tackle on Elliot Dixon, although there appeared little intent on Ngatai's part. Highlanders made sure their numerical advantage was not wasted, Naholo crossing early in the second period to leave the hosts with too much to do.

Force were a try down by the time Brache scored his first in the fifth minute, the winger intercepted Harumichi Tatekawa's ill-advised pass and broke clear to score, and his second in the 15th minute after Dane Haylett-Petty's break continued to set the tone for a dominant first half.


THE REACTION

"I was gone at 60 minutes, I was telling the physio that I'm starting to cramp and all that, started looking to the bench. They said five minutes more, but that five minutes was long," Naholo was not quite sure how he lasted the full 80 for Highlanders.

"It was a bit frustrating that the ball didn't really stick tonight. The bonus point was in the picture, but a win's a win, we'll take that," Kurtley Beale was not fully satisfied with Waratahs' performance.

"I asked the team to be tough in those hard moments and rebound, and that's what we did. We were dominant for most of that first half, and it was great that we could hold on for the win," Force captain Matt Hodgson praised the side for toughing out the win at Sunwolves.


THE UPSHOT

Highlanders proved they remain a force to be reckoned with and they are fourth in the Australasian Group, while Chiefs are third. Sharks' win sees them close in on the South African Group play-off places, while Waratahs are level on points with Brumbies in the Australia Conference and have a game in hand.