The Highlanders came back from 13-6 down to win 23-13 against the Chiefs last night in Dunedin. It was a gutsy performance that saw the southern men take their second win in two weeks, ensuring their unbeaten status in 2011 Super Rugby.
It was a brutal game, shown by the number of injury breaks taken as players constantly threw themselves at one another with no regard for personal safety.
To their credit though, almost every one of the injured players played on and, in the Highlanders' case, proved to be the difference.
The game started at a fast pace and the Chiefs made their intentions very clear early on as they looked to move the ball to unleash their dangerous backs.
They sent wave after wave of attack at a Highlanders side who did all they could to contain them and ended up scrambling on numerous occasions, holding on by the skin of their teeth to hold the Chiefs to just one try.
It wasn't looking good for the Highlanders, but five minutes before the break it became clear that the Chiefs forwards were tiring which gave the Highlanders some hope for the second half.
The Highlanders took full advantage of this and ran the ball from everywhere, moved the ball from one side of the field to the other, and ran the Chiefs forwards all over the park to ensure that by the end of the game only one team was in control.
Tries to Nasi Manu and Kade Poki along with a Robbie Robinson penalty gave the Highlanders a 10-point lead they never relinquished, holding the Chiefs scoreless for the remainder of the game to win 23-13.
It was a truly gutsy performance as they made tackle after tackle and hit every ruck with feeling. The loose forward trio of Adam Thomson, Alando Soakai and Nasi Manu were outstanding, constantly effecting turnovers and completely outplaying their opponents for a second week in a row.
The tight five was also very good, pushing the Chiefs off-ball numerous times in the second half.
Their backline was more steady than brilliant, but contained a lethal Chiefs backline well, which was a big factor in their win. Kade Poki looked dangerous every time he got the ball, while Ben Smith always looked in control at the back.
Having now won their first two games, the Highlanders mark their best start to a season for many years.
Many have seen them as being the easy beats of the New Zealand teams in recent years, but this year they have shown that they will be a challenge to anyone in the competition.
Bear in mind, they have done all this without their two best players in Tom Donnelly and Colin Slade, who will both add an enormous amount to the team on their return.
However, it is important that they don't get ahead of themselves and they are likely to come crashing back down to earth some time in the next three weeks. They start by taking on the defending champion Bulls team at their fortress, Loftus Versfeld. Next is the Stormers in Cape Town, before returning to Dunedin to take on the Crusaders.
This is possibly the hardest three weeks any team in the competition will face this year and beating any one of these teams will be very hard.
But if there's any team that's up for the challenge, it would certainly have to be the new and improved Highlanders, who will no doubt look to smash their opponents up front as they have done the past two games.
With a good start behind them, the Highlanders will travel to South Africa with all the confidence in the world to take on the hardest leg of their campaign.
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