Chiefs beat Highlanders in Super Rugby's NZ season opener

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Liam Messam of the Chiefs makes a break during the Super Rugby match between the Highlanders and the Chiefs, held at Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin, New Zealand, on 24th February 2017. Credit: Joe Allison / www.photosport.nz

Liam Messam of the Chiefs makes a break during the Super Rugby match between the Highlanders and the Chiefs, held at Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin, New Zealand, on 24th February 2017. Credit: Joe Allison / www.photosport.nz (Photo: photosport.nz)

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.

The Queensland Reds opened with a 28-26 win over the Sharks, with replacement scrumhalf Jim Tuttle crossing out wide late only a minute after going on to claim the winning try before Pat Lambie missed a chance to kick the South African club to victory in Brisbane.

The Queenslanders had more than double the run meters of the Durban-based Sharks, and scored four tries against two, but over-complicated their attack and had to scrape for the win on home soil.

In Dunedin, 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."

In Brisbane, the Reds didn't hit the front until the last eight minutes via Tuttle's try despite rampaging center Samu Kerevi scoring two tries and No. 8 Scott Higginbotham also touching down.

Jean-Luc du Preez and Tera Mtembu scored tries the for the Sharks, who led 16-13 at half time and 26-23 going into the last 10 minutes. Missed kicks cost the Reds, with Quade Cooper converting one try and landing two penalties, and the hosts were also twice down to 14 men for two yellow cards. But in the end it was a miss by Sharks flyhalf Lambie four minutes from time that gave the Reds a victory. Lambie had been 100 percent with two conversions and four penalties until then.

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

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