WELLINGTON, New Zealand - Super 15 rugby's defending champions the Waikato Chiefs and the tournament's newest team, South Africa's Southern Kings, unexpectedly made winning starts in the first full round of the competition.
Despite wearing the mantle of champions, the injury-hit Chiefs started as slight underdogs against the Otago Highlanders on Friday but emerged as confident and emphatic 41-27 winners.
The Southern Kings had carefully staked out the ground of tournament underdogs before going on to win their debut match 22-10 over Australia's Western Force on their home ground at Port Elizabeth on Saturday.
In a round of gripping derby matches, the Queensland Reds beat interstate rivals the New South Wales Waratahs 25-17 while South Africa's Bulls beat the Stormers by the same scoreline.
The Auckland Blues, who finished 12th last year in their worst-ever Super rugby season, also made a winning start under the coaching knights appointed to lead their recovery, Sir John Kirwan and Sir Graham Henry.
The Blues rallied from 20-16 down midway through the second half to beat the favoured Wellington Hurricanes 34-20.
Last season's beaten finalist the Sharks beat the Cheetahs 29-22 in another intense South African derby while the ACT Brumbies beat the Melbourne Rebels 30-13 to stay unbeaten in the Australian conference.
The Chiefs' win over the formidable Highlanders provided one of the highlights of the round which saw New Zealand and South African teams in action for the first time.
The match at Dunedin's enclosed stadium saw seven tries and six lead changes before the Chiefs finally emerged victorious, grabbing a bonus point by scoring four tries.
Centre Tim Nanai-Williams scored the first and last of those tries in a match in which all the tries were scored by outside backs. Wingers Patrick Osborne and Asaeli Tikoirotuma also scored for the Chiefs while fullback Ben Smith and wingers Hosea Gear and Kade Poki scored for the Highlanders.
Otago had been one of the most active recruiters during the off-season, acquiring former All Blacks lock Brad Thorn from Japan and current All Blacks Ma'a Nonu at centre and Andrew Hore, at hooker. Thorn and Hore were sidelined on Friday but Nonu started in a strong Highlanders lineup.
Otago started strongly in a match played at a frenetic pace. Two tries were scored among 15 points and the lead changed hands three times in a three-minute spell after halftime.
But Waikato finally emerged victorious with the help of Nanai-Williams' second try.
"We've got pretty good depth and really good spirit," Chiefs coach Dave Rennie said. "I thought the culture of the team really stood out.
"We've got a few beaten-up guys but to come here and get five points and deny the Highlanders anything is a real bonus."
Teenage winger Sergeal Petersen scored two tries while flyhalf Demetri Catrakilis booted four penalties as the Kings defied all expectations to make a winning debut in Port Elizabeth.
For a week, at least, the win sent the Kings to the top of the South African conference in which even they expect to finish last.
Few in South Africa were satisfied with how the Kings lobbied hard to get into Super rugby at the expense of the Johannesburg-based Lions. The Kings couldn't even qualify for the Currie Cup.
Confirmed for Super rugby only in August, their preparation was strained and captain Luke Watson, who suffered a throat injury during the match, said the patchwork side will be underdogs for the entire season.
"We knew it was crucial to get a win today to get the public behind us," Kings centre Andries Strauss said. "We must keep our feet on the ground, it is only our first step into this competition.
"There is still big pressure on us but I hope we can take the momentum from this win further into the competition."
Queensland centre Ben Tapuai crossed for his second try of the match five minutes from fulltime to give the Reds a 25-17 win over archrivals the Waratahs.
Winger Dom Shipperley scored Queensland's first try in the sixth minute and Tapuai capitalized on a break by Ed Quirk to touch down four minutes later as the Reds took a 17-3 lead into halftime.
Former rugby league international Israel Folau, who also made a brief foray into Australian rules football, scored his first Super 15 try for the Waratahs two minutes into the second half, and substitute Ben Volavola levelled the scores at 17-17 in the 59th minute.
Michael Harris kicked two conversions and two penalties for the Reds, who lost their opening match last week to the ACT Brumbies.
The Waratahs were playing their first match of the season after having a bye in last week's Australian-only first round. Bernard Foley made both conversions for NSW, while Brendan McKibbin kicked a penalty.
The match between the Blues and Hurricanes mirrored that between the Chiefs and Highlanders with seven tries and six changes. Blues winger Frank Halai scored two tries, conceded a penalty try and earned a yellow card in an eventful and eventually match-winning debut.
He was sent to the sin-bin for deliberately knocking the ball over the deadball line in an action which also conceded the penalty try which gave the Hurricanes a 20-16 lead. But Halai then returned to the field to score his second and match-winning try for Auckland.
© Copyright 2013