May 7 (Reuters) - Waisake Naholo returned from two months out with a broken leg to score two tries and help create another to give the Otago Highlanders an impressive 26-13 Super League victory over the Waikato Chiefs in Hamilton on Saturday.
The victory for the 2015 champions moved them into fourth place in the Australasian group on 32 points, five behind the competition-leading Crusaders and Chiefs, who are both on 37.
The Chiefs, whose form has gone off the boil in the last month yet still managed to eke out wins, were reduced to 14 men twice during the match.
Inside centre Charlie Ngatai was sinbinned for a dangerous tackle on the stroke of halftime before Maama Vaipulu received a yellow card for a professional foul with 12 minutes remaining and his side trailing 23-8.
For the Highlanders, prop Dan Lienert-Brown also scored a try, which had been sparked by a counter-attacking burst from Naholo, while flyhalf Lima Sopoaga slotted three penalties. Marty Banks added a conversion.
Flyhalf Aaron Cruden slotted an early penalty and grabbed a try while replacement Sam Vaka scored a consolation try in the final minute for the Chiefs.
With the game billed as a showdown between All Blacks contenders, the Highlanders’ strategy that relied heavily on a tactical kicking game and aggressive defence that kept the home side on the back foot was executed to test-match level.
The tactics worked for the most part, even though the Chiefs managed to make several line breaks only for the scrambling defence of the visitors proving up to the task of stopping the best try-scoring side in the competition.
The defensive effort helped the Highlanders stamp their authority on the competition and remind their fellow contenders why they won the title for the first time last year.
The Chiefs only first half points came from an early Cruden penalty, while Sopoaga, both of whom were playing in front of the All Blacks selectors, slotted two in reply.
Lienert-Brown also scored a try after Naholo launched another counter-attack that swept down field to give his side a 13-3 lead at the break. (Reporting by Greg Stutchbury in Wellington; Editing by Amlan Chakraborty)