Super Rugby Pacific: Highlanders' second-half fightback breaks Moana Pasifika's hearts to start 2024

 The Highlanders have been forced to come from behind to claim victory in their Super Rugby Pacific season opener, and deny Moana Pasifika a famous win in the process.

Down 14-18 at halftime, the Highlanders rallied in the second spell, led by a standout display from club debutant Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens, who scored a double from fullback.   

The win is also the perfect return for former coach Jamie Joseph, who is back with the side as head of rugby in support of Clarke Dermody.  

Despite being denied what would have been just the fourth victory in their short history, Moana Pasifika can take incredible pride in their display, and the confidence from clear improvement under the tutelage of new head coach Tana Umaga.   

Through the boot of William Havili, Moana Pasifika took an early 6-0 lead, before the Highlanders hit back through Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens.

Sam Gilbert against Moana Pasifika.
Sam Gilbert against Moana Pasifika. Photo credit: Getty Images

After moving from the Blues in the off-season in search of regular game time, the fullback combined with Folau Fakatava, as quick play and incisive footwork yielded the first try of the game.  

Sam Gilbert's conversion saw the Highlanders take a 7-6 lead, which was extended to 14-6 when Saula Ma'u crashed over from close range.  

However, when the Highlanders lost Fabian Holland to the sin bin as a result of repeat infringements, Moana Pasifika took their chance.  

With the extra man, substitute Jacob Norris went over for Moana Pasifika's first try of the season, courtesy of an attacking scrum.   

And after being played through by Danny Toala, Nigel Ah Wong marked his return to Super Rugby with a try to end the first half, and an 18-14 lead courtesy of Havili's conversion.  

At risk of falling to defeat at home to start the new season, Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens added his second after a clever cutout pass from Wales international Rhys Patchell, before Gilbert's conversion locked scores up at 21-all.  

Facing his former side for the first time, fellow new Highlanders arrival Timoci Tavatavanawai restored the Highlanders' lead, and showed his power to hold off multiple defenders and put his new team back in front.  

Moana Pasifika had chances, and saw Julian Savea denied what would have been a record 61st Super Rugby try by desperate defence from Gilbert.

And entering the final 10 minutes with still just one score, the Highlanders turned on the style late to seal their win.  

A break from Sean Withy freed Jona Nareki on the left, who found Fakatava unmarked inside him. Fakatava then threw a reverse spiral pass out the back to Billy Harmon, who sent Gilbert over in the corner to complete the victory.  

The bonus point victory sees the Highlanders to fourth on the Super Rugby table, behind the Hurricanes, Brumbies and Blues.  

The win also sets up a clash with the Blues, as part of Super Round in Melbourne next Friday.   

Highlanders 35 (Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens 2, Ma'u, Tavatavanawai, Gilbert tries; Gilbert 5 conversions)  

Moana Pasifika 21 (Norris, Ah Wong tries; Havili conversion; Havili 2 penalties)