The Highlanders clinched a hard-fought 25-15 win over the Chiefs in Dunedin on Saturday to finish second in the New Zealand conference. CRAIG LEWIS reports.
What a finish it has been to the battle for supremacy in the New Zealand conference. Just three points separated the top four sides coming into the final day of the regular season.
In the opening game on Saturday, the Hurricanes stunned the Crusaders in Christchurch to move to the top of the Kiwi conference, going two points clear of the Chiefs and five points ahead of the Highlanders.
Ultimately, it is the Canes who have incredibly gone from fourth to finish first in the New Zealand conference, while the Highlanders, Chiefs and Crusaders will finish second, third and fourth. It's also a good outcome for the Lions, who now just need a win, draw or losing bonus point against the Jaguares on Saturday night to finish top of the overall standings.
With everything still to play for at the start of the clash in Dunedin, the encounter between the defending champions and this season’s New Zealand front-runners certainly lived up to its billing.
The first half was filled with breathtaking side-to-side attack from both sides, but also some ferocious defending. The second half had no shortage of entertainment and it’s fair share of drama, but ultimately it was the Highlanders who came away with a most deserved victory.
The Landers played more intelligent rugby in the second half, playing deep in Chiefs territory and using limited opportunities to great effect, while their defence was outstanding.
The Chiefs did strike first when winger Toni Pulu did well to twist his way over the tryline and hand the early advantage to the visitors.
In the opening quarter, both Lima Sopoaga and Damian McKenzie missed relatively simple penalty attempts, but gradually the ascendancy swung in favour of the Highlanders, who spent 10 minutes camped in Chiefs territory prior to the half-hour mark.
They looked to have received reward when Waisake Naholo went over under the posts, but the try was ruled out due to an obstruction in the buildup. However, the big winger wouldn’t be denied in the 31st minute when he displayed incredible strength and finishing ability to dot down in the corner.
Yet, the missed conversion enabled the Chiefs to hold on to a tenuous two-point lead, which they could have extended before the break, but an untimely knock-on ended a beautiful counter-attack that looked sure to culminate in a try.
With 62% of possession and 69% of territory, the Highlanders would have been frustrated to go into half-time trailing, with the Chiefs having to make 63 tackles to 39.
After an enthralling opening half, McKenzie and Sopoaga traded penalties just after the restart as the encounter remained on a knife-edge.
In a decisive moment, though, Chiefs flanker Tom Sanders was sin-binned for lifting a player into a dangerous position at a ruck, and soon after Sopoaga slotted a second penalty to hand the Highlanders the lead for the first time in the match.
Two minutes later and the Highlanders created arguably the try of the season as incredible interplay between as many as six players finally saw replacement Dan Pryor dive over to score, while a superb conversion from Sopoaga suddenly opened up a handy eight-point buffer.
The Chiefs did have an opportunity to hit right back, but James Lowe dropped the ball cold with the tryline at his mercy just after the hour mark. In the end, it didn’t prove too costly though as Lachlan Boshier went over in the corner soon after to reduce the deficit to three points with 10 minutes to play.
It was anyone’s game at that point, but the result finally swung decisively in favour of the Highlanders when Matt Faddes went close to scoring, had the ball knocked from his grasp, only for Sopoaga to snatch it up and dot down.
His conversion opened up a 10-point lead, and they held on to that advantage to celebrate an impressive result that saw them leapfrog their way into second spot in the Kiwi standings.
Highlanders – Tries: Waisake Naholo, Dan Pryor, Lima Sopoaga. Conversions: Lima Sopoaga (2). Penalties: Sopoaga (2).
Chiefs – Tries: Toni Pulu, Lachlan Boshier. Conversion: Damian McKenzie. Penalty: McKenzie.
Highlanders – 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Matt Faddes, 12 Malakai Fekitoa, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 James Lentjes, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Alex Ainley, 4 Tom Franklin, 3 Siosuia Halanukonuka, 2 Ash Dixon, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown.
Subs: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Aki Seiuli, 18 Josh Hohneck, 19 Mark Reddish, 20 Liam Squire, 21 Dan Pryor, 22 Te Aihe Toma, 23 Fletcher Smith.
Chiefs – 15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Toni Pulu, 13 Seta Tamanivalu, 12 Anton Lienert-Brown, 11 James Lowe, 10 Aaron Cruden (c), 9 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 8 Liam Messam, 7 Sam Cane (c), 6 Tom Sanders, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Dominic Bird, 3 Atu Moli, 2 Nathan Harris, 1 Kane Hames.
Subs: 16 Hika Elliot, 17 Siegfried Fisi’ihoi, 18 Hiroshi Yamashita, 19 Taleni Seu, 20 Lachlan Boshier, 21 Brad Weber, 22 Stephen Donald, 23 Sam McNicol.
Photo: Rob Jefferies/Getty Images