Wellington (AFP) - Ben Smith sparked a second-half blitz of long-range tries to give the Highlanders a 34-15 victory that brought an abrupt halt to the Golden Lions flying start to the Super season.
The defending champions held a narrow 10-3 lead at half-time in Dunedin, but four minutes into the second half this had blown out to a 24-3 advantage with two 70-metre tries.
Ten minutes later they produced another try from their own 22-metre line on their way to outscoring the South Africans four tries to two.
The Lions, who started the year with back-to-back wins over the Sunwolves and Waikato Chiefs, never recovered from yielding 21 points in the third quarter as they crashed to their first defeat.
They produced two tries in the closing stages of the game but the outcome by then was beyond doubt.
The Highlanders laid the foundation for the victory with a kick-and-chase first half to keep the Lions on the back foot and a dominant pack who restricted the amount of clean ball the Lions were able to secure.
"Our forwards played really well. We knew they were going to come hard at set piece time and our forwards fronted there and we made the most of the ball we had," captain Ben Smith said.
Lima Sopoaga, who finished with 14 points and a 100 percent kicking success rate, engineered all of the Highlanders first half points with penalty and then a delicate chip kick to put right wing Matt Faddes in for his first try.
The Lions best try-scoring chance in the first half came against the run of play when a Jaco Kriel intercept sparked a 60-metre move but when Ruan Combrinck tried to ground the ball he was held up by Malakai Fekitoa.
With a seven point lead at the break the Highlanders were not comfortable but everything changed two minutes into the second half.
Ben Smith took a quick lineout with Aaron Smith on the Highlanders 22 line which ended with a try to Ben Smith.
From the restart Faddes pulled off an intercept to run 70 metres for a try and that was followed by an Alex Ainley turnover deep in Highlanders territory which resulted in a try to Fekitoa at the other end of the field.
Sopoaga, who converted all the tries, added a drop goal to have the Highlanders up 34-3 before the Lions finished off with tries to Rohan Janse Van Rensburg, on debut, and Ruan Ackermann.
Elton Jantjies kicked a penalty in the first half and a conversion in the second.