Newly-crowned Australian champions the Queensland Reds received a harsh reality check when Kiwi also-rans the Highlanders outclassed them 40-19 in the opening Super Rugby Trans Tasman match in Dunedin on Friday.
AS IT HAPPENED | Highlanders v Reds
The Highlanders scored six tries to three in the new-format tournament, which pits Australian and New Zealand franchises against each other for the first time since the pandemic ended the old Super Rugby competition.
The Reds, fresh from a thrilling win over Brumbies in the Super AU final, were comprehensively outplayed, underlining the challenge facing Australian teams against their well-drilled Kiwi counterparts.
"It's very frustrating, the Highlanders were very good tonight, they pressured us and made the most of our mistakes. Unfortunately we kept making them in the wrong areas," Reds co-captain Liam Wright said.
The Highlanders went into the match as favourites, despite finishing second last in New Zealand's Super Rugby Aotearoa with five losses in eight games.
The result means the Reds, who had an outstanding season in Super Rugby AU with only one loss, have won only one of their last 18 matches against New Zealand opposition.
Highlanders skipper Aaron Smith said it was exciting to play overseas opposition again.
"You had that feeling of the unknown again - there were tries to each side in the first five minutes and it was a real ding-dong battle in that first half," he said.
"That was a massive effort by my boys."
The Highlanders scored the opening try in just 35 seconds when centre Scott Gregory dotted down after Reds halfback Kalani Thomas turned over the ball.
Thomas redeemed himself when he stretched out to down the ball despite a despairing last-gasp tackle from his opposite number Smith.
The Highlanders responded with relentless attack and were rewarded when Ash Dixon barged over for the hosts' second try.
Winger Sio Tomkinson made it 21-7 at the break, with Reds co-captain James O'Connor failing to return for the second half after a head knock.
Winger Suliasi Vunivalu scored two spectacular, carbon-copy tries at the beginning and the end of the second half for the Reds, leaping high on both occasions to gather a cross-field kick.
But the Highlanders retained a comfortable buffer as Dixon scored his second and late efforts from Liam Coltman and Ngane Punivai put the result beyond doubt.
Tries: Scott Gregory, Ash Dixon (2), Palelei Tomkinson, Liam Coltman, Ngane Punivai
Conversions: Mitch Hunt (5)
Tries: Kalani Thomas, Suliasi Vunivalu (2)
Conversions: James O'Connor, Bryce Hegarty
15 Sam Gilbert, 14 Palelei Tomkinson, 13 Michael Collins, 12 Scott Gregory, 11 Jona Nareki, 10 Mitch Hunt, 9 Aaron Smith (co-captain), 8 Kazuki Himeno, 7 Billy Harmon, 6 Hugh Renton, 5 Josh Dickson, 4 Pari Pari Parkinson, 3 Siate Tokolahi, 2 Ash Dixon (co-captain), 1 Ayden Johnstone
Substitutes: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Ethan De Groot, 18 Josh Hohneck, 19 Bryn Evans, 20 James Lentjes, 21 Kayne Hammington, 22 Tim O'Malley, 23 Ngane Punivai
15 Bryce Hegarty, 14 Filipo Daugunu, 13 Josh Flook, 12 Hamish Stewart, 11 Jock Campbell, 10 James O'Connor 9 Kalani Thomas, 8 Seru Uru, 7 Liam Wright, 6 Angus Scott-Young, 5 Angus Blyth, 4 Ryan Smith, 3 Feao Fotuaika, 2 Brandon Paenga-Amosa, 1 Dane Zander
Substitutes: 16 Josh Nasser, 17 Harry Hoopert, 18 Taniela Tupou, 19 Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, 20 Fraser McReight, 21 Moses Sorovi, 22 Isaac Henry, 23 Suliasi Vunivalu