Reigning Super 15 champions the Waikato Chiefs held off a second-half fightback to defeat the Otago Highlanders 41-27 on Friday and launch their title defence with a convincing bonus-point win.
The Chiefs scored four tries to three, including a brace to Tim Nanai-Williams, who proved an able replacement for Sonny Bill Williams after being switched to the centres to cover for the departed rugby league convert.
Both sides showed plenty of attacking verve in a match where the lead switched six times. But the Chiefs staged a late surge to claim victory, despite missing a clutch of key players through injury.
Captain Craig Clarke said the Chiefs had plenty of room for improvement as they look to build on last year's maiden title for the North Island club.
"We were a bit disappointed in letting in a few tries but we've got a hell of an exciting team and managed to score a few points," he said.
The Highlanders, who finished ninth last season, were buoyed by star recruits Ma'a Nonu and Tony Woodcock. But skipper Hosea Gear said his side lacked patience as they tried to chase down the Chiefs' lead for much of the match.
"We were trying to move the ball but it just got away from us in the end," he said. "We probably let ourselves down just trying to force that 50-50 pass where we should have just hung onto it, but those are the lessons we'll learn."
Ben Smith scored the opening try to the Highlanders, diving over the line after scooping up an offload from Lima Sopoaga.
But the home side were caught napping two minutes later when Nanai-Williams turned on the afterburners and ran three-quarters the length of the field for his first try as the Chiefs dominated.
Gear closed the gap to 16-14 against the run of play just before half-time, forcing his way through a thicket of Chiefs' defenders for a converted try.
The lead changed three times in a frantic 10 minutes after the break, thanks to tit-for-tat tries from the Chiefs' Patrick Osborne and Highlanders winger Kade Poki.
The Chiefs then pulled ahead with two quick tries to Asaeli Tikoirotuma and Nanai-Williams.
Two Chiefs penalties off the boot of Gareth Anscombe put the result beyond doubt, with the fullback ending the night on three conversions and five penalties.