The Highlanders fired an early warning shot to their Super Rugby rivals, with a dominant 52-19 win over the Hurricanes in Dunedin.
Touted as the Kiwi side to struggle most in 2024, the Highlanders ran in seven converted tries in the 90-minute pre-season hitout.
Both sides opted to play enterprising rugby under the roof at Forsyth Barr, with more than 60 players used throughout.
Folau Fakatava showed the Highlanders have a worthy successor to Aaron Smith, with the Hawke’s Bay halfback putting in a brilliant 52 minutes with typically sniping runs, strong defence and masterful game management.
Former Moana Pasifika winger Timoci Tavatavanawai also shone for his new side while Josh Moorby put in a solid performance at fullback for the Hurricanes.
Fakatava was heavily involved in the first try, the hosts showing great continuity in the build up, eventually finished off by Daniel Lienert-Brown.
He would then go under the bar for the Highlanders’ second, running a great support line inside on the back of a break by Connor Garden-Bachop to give a the home team a 14-0 lead after 20 minutes.
The Hurricanes responded through a try in the corner to James O’Reilly, created by a darting break by Richard Judd.
Brayden Iose pulled one back for the Hurricanes but the gap soon widened as Billy Harmon scored for the Highlanders before centre Tanielu Tele’a sliced through the Hurricanes defence.
Jonah Lowe rolled his way over the chalk for the Highlanders right on the stroke of time in the second third giving his side a 38-12 advantage.
Errors crept in as the substitutes rolled on with the Highlanders showing great tenacity to defend their line and repel a spirited Hurricanes attack.
They would be rewarded shortly after with their sixth try to Matt Whaanga with Ajay Faleafaga maintaining the Highlanders perfect record off the tee.
The Cane’s struck back with a scorcher sparked by a Kini Naholo break who linked with replacement halfback Kyle Preston to reduce the damage to 43-19.
Whaanga brought up the 50 for the Highlanders, powering through several defenders for his second to ice the cake for the home side.
Crusaders fight hard in Bristol
Meanwhile, the Crusaders bounced back from their loss to Munster last weekend with a come from behind win against the Bristol Bears.
Macca Springer and Levi Aumua both bagged doubles as the Super Rugby Pacific champions prevailed 31-14 at Ashton Gate.
Locked up at 7-all at halftime, the Crusaders pulled away in the second, showing too much class for the Premiership side.
It took almost 30 minutes for the first points, with the hosts striking from a solid lineout drive.
An unmarked Springer responded for the Crusaders who showed slick hands to send the young Mako away.
A pinpoint cross from Chay Fihaki set Springer up for a second, though he still had to evade two tacklers on his way to the line.
The Bears brought things back to all square, but back to back Aumua tries clicked the Crusaders into high gear, with Hotham sealing the win in the 77th.
The Blues outclass the Eagles
In Yokohama, the Blues put on a showcase against the Eagles, running in nine tries on a superb attacking display.
All Black winger Caleb Clarke bagged a hat-trick in the 57-22 rout.
The Blues drew first blood through Clarke, with Stephen Perofeta scoring a second on the back of a Eagles error.
The Kiwis ran riot early, Corey Evans finishing off a scintillating move before Clarke stole the show.
A Stephen Perofeta cross appeared to have too much on it but Clarke showed incredible acrobatics to touch the ball inside the sideline.
Clarke crossed for a third shortly after, again proving to elusive for the Eagles defence as he weaved his way to the line.
Josh Beehre picked up his second of the day followed by another stunning movement capped off by Sam Nock as the Blues cracked fifty.
Chiefs edge Kubota Spears in Japan
The Chiefs came through a hard-fought contest to beat the Kubota Spears 35-30.
The Waikato side ran in five tries to four, rebounding from last weekend’s outing.
The Chiefs return to Hamilton to prepare for their final pre-season match against the Blues in Auckland next Friday.