The Highlanders moved top of the New Zealand conference and all but ended the Chiefs' play-off hopes with a 29-25 win in Dunedin. BRENTON CHELIN reports.
The Chiefs have left themselves with it all to do if they are to make the play-offs, but on the evidence of this performance even if they do make it, they won't get much further than that.
While they made plenty of the play over the 80 minutes, outscoring the Highlanders three tries to two, ill-discipline and a shaky set piece cost them once again.
They struggled at scrum time where the Highlanders won two penalties in the first half, one leading to their first try. Following great work from Shaun Treeby and Malakai Fekitoa, Patrick Osborne went over as the visitors led 13-10 at the break.
Sopoaga levelled things up early in the second half with a penalty, and then came the deciding moment in the game. After a period of sustained pressure from the Chiefs deep in the Highlanders' half, a breakdown steal from hooker Brayden Mitchell saw the Highlanders counter. Aaron Smith had a dart before the ball came Malakai Fekitoa's way. He broke down the right touchline and found wing Richard Buckman who in turn put the ball back inside for Ben Smith to inflict the hammer blow to the Chiefs.
To their credit they did show some fight, with late tries from Tim Nanai-Williams and Josh Hohneck, but the boot of first Sopoaga and later Parker helped keep the Highlanders' noses in front.
The loss means the Chiefs remain in eighth place, two points outside of the play-off spots. They will face the Hurricanes at home next week before closing out the regular season away to the Blues.
Highlanders – Tries: Patrick Osborne, Ben Smith. Conversions: Lima Sopoaga (2). Penalties: Sopoaga (4), Hayden Parker.
Chiefs – Tries: Dwayne Sweeney, Tim Nanai-Williams, Josh Hohneck. Conversions: Aaron Cruden (2) Penalties: Cruden, Gareth Anscombe.
Highlanders – 15 Ben Smith, 14 Richard Buckman, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Shaun Treeby, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu, 7 Shane Christie, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Tom Franklin, 3 Ma'afu Fia, 2 Brayden Mitchell, 1 Kane Hames.
Subs: 16 Ged Robinson, 17 Matias Diaz, 18 Chris King, 19 Josh Bekhuis, 20 Lee Allan, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Hayden Parker, 23 Phil Burleigh.
Chiefs – 15 Gareth Anscombe, 14 Dwayne Sweeney, 13 Robbie Fruean, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 Tom Marshall, 10 Aaron Cruden (c), 9 Augustine Pulu, 8 Liam Squire, 7 Tanerau Latimer, 6 Liam Messam, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Michael Fitzgerald, 3 Ben Tameifuna, 2 Mahonri Schwalger, 1 Pauliasi Manu.
Subs: 16 Nathan Harris, 17 Jamie Mackintosh, 18 Josh Hohneck, 19 Matt Symons, 20 Tevita Koloamatangi, 21 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 22 Tim Nanai-Williams, 23 James Lowe.
Photo: Rob Jefferies/Getty Images