Despite never looking the better side in Dunedin, the Chiefs pulled three tries from nowhere, including two James Lowe intercepts, to claim a bonus point.
The Highlanders will rue wasted opportunities on home turf after holding 59 per cent of the ball and making almost 300 more metres.
Playmakers Lima Sopoaga and Aaron Smith couldn’t get their side over the line, while a concussion ended skipper Ben Smith’s night early.
They’ll look to regroup ahead of their tussle next week against the Crusaders, while the Chiefs will host the Blues.
“It was a good test for us, I thought the new guys debuting for us really stepped up today,” Chiefs skipper Aaron Cruden said.
“The signs were good when we got breached, our scramble was good but it’s going to be a hard old season if we don’t build phases and hold on to the ball.”
The first half was one-way traffic, yet the Highlanders managed to shoot themselves in the foot twice despite enjoying all the possession.
A Sopoaga penalty goal opened the scoring, before Maori All Blacks winger Lowe capitalised on a comedy of errors in the ninth minute to claim the lead.
Test midfielder Malakai Fekitoa threw an errant flick pass, which Aaron Smith collected off the turf and threw straight into the arms of Lowe to score.
The 24-year-old Lowe repeated the trick eight minutes later by pinching a Waisake Naholo pass to score down the left edge.
Rattled, the Highlanders had more reason to moan after Smith came down from contesting a high ball and banged his head, exiting with concussion.
Sopoaga reduced the arrears with two late-half penalty goals as the Highlanders turned the screws, but still went into the break 14-9 down.
Having made almost 70 more passes and 250 extra metres with the ball in the first half, Tony Brown’s men returned for the second half with plenty of purpose.
Yet, the Chiefs scored again against the run of play, nabbing their third five-pointer after a lineout set-play sent hooker Hika Elliot into score.
The former All Blacks’ rake threw short to Siate Tokolahi, who sneakily threw back to Elliot to scoot down the left edge and over the line.
Brown quickly acted, bringing in Test loosie Elliot Dixon for Liam Squire as the Highlanders continued to fruitlessly dominate territory and possession.
Two Sopoaga penalty goals and a Cruden three-pointer ensued as the Chiefs held on to secure a 24-15 triumph.
“Maybe just a little bit of nerves — maybe a little too keen,” Sopoaga said.
“We’ll debrief that over the weekend.”
Chiefs 24 (James Lowe 2, Hika Elliot tries Aaron Cruden 3 cons pen) beat Highlanders 15 (Lima Sopoaga 5 pens) at Forsyth Barr Stadium. Referee: Mike Fraser.
- Fox Sports