Nine weeks after breaking his leg, All Blacks winger Waisake Naholo celebrated his return to Super Rugby with two tries as the Highlanders downed the Chiefs 26-13 in Hamilton.
The high-tempo match in front of a sold-out Waikato Stadium on Saturday featured too many mistakes to be a classic, but 24-year-old Naholo added extra punch in the backline and at the breakdown for the defending champions.
On a seven-game unbeaten run, the Chiefs had promised much but were guilty of impatience for much of the first half as they looked to force the pace, mixing some sublime running with basic handling errors.
The Highlanders targeted kicking game from all corners of the park kept the home team under pressure, and although fullback Damian McKenzie was rock-steady under the high ball, the Chiefs struggled to launch any meaningful counterattack.
Ahead 6-3 after an early exchange of penalties, the Highlanders crossed for their first try as the half-hour mark ticked over.
Naholo made the initial ground with a charge down the right, then the Highlanders showed good patience in recycling possession until the gap opened up for loosehead prop Daniel Lienert-Brown to sell the dummy and slice through.
The Chiefs suffered a further blow right on halftime when inside centre Charlie Ngatai was sinbinned after getting too far under Highlanders flanker Elliot Dixon in an ill-timed tackle.
Ahead 13-3 at the break, the Highlanders extended their lead three minutes after the restart. Fullback Ben Smith had a dab and came close, but a quick recycle created space on the outside and Naholo charged over for his first try.
The Chiefs hit back two minutes after Ngatai returned to the fray, All Blacks pivot Aaron Cruden diving over in the corner after a Ngatai break finally gave the home team some front-foot ball.
The Highlanders restored the margin 10 minutes later, shifting the attack from left to right before Naholo punched through for his second try.
A second yellow card for the Chiefs, this time to Ma’ama Vaipulu with 12 minutes remaining, left the home team with no chance of salvaging a win.