The Chiefs inflicted back-to-back defeats on the Highlanders, and kept their Super Rugby season alive with a gritty 20-7 win.
The Chiefs inflicted back to back defeats on the Highlanders, and kept their Super Rugby season alive with a gritty 20-7 win at Waikato Stadium in Hamilton on Saturday.
The hosts trailed 6-7 at half-time, but scored 14 unanswered points after the break to pick up a vital win on their return home from South Africa.
The Chiefs outscored the southerners two tries to one, with star flanker Liam Messam sealing the deal on the stroke of full-time. But the Highlanders only had themselves to blame, with a whopping 24 tackles missed during the course of an error-riddled match.
Injuries didn't help the Highlanders either, who first lost in-form winger Kade Poki before the match even kicked off and then his late replacement James Paterson to a shoulder injury shortly before half-time.
It got worse for the visitors after the break, when flank Adam Thomson – arguably the Highlanders' most valuable player this season – watched the rest of the match from the sidelines nursing a rib injury.
Hooker Jason Rutledge, responsible for scoring the Highlanders only try of the match, was another no-show in the second half.
Highlanders' back-up prop Bronson Murray was also forced from the field in the second forty, and was later followed by speedster Siale Piutau which left Thomson's replacement, Nick Crosswell, playing out the final minutes of the match on the wing.
The Chiefs suffered an injury blow of their own after flank Scott Waldrom was helped off the field in some pain during the second half.
Rutledge gave the Highlanders an early lead with his try after nine minutes, created by a brilliant side-step and explosive attacking run by fly-half Lima Sopoaga. When Sopoaga split open the Chiefs' defence, Rutledge was in support out wide and took the pivot's floating pass to score under the posts.
Having missed an earlier penalty attempt, Robbie Robinson raised the flags from bang in front with his ensuing conversion.
The Highlanders remained dominant for the first 30 minutes, forcing repeated turnovers with strong counter-rucking which has been their forte this season. But handling errors prevented them from capitalising on attacking opportunities and allowed the Chiefs to fight their way back into the match courtesy of two Stephen Donald penalties.
The Chiefs also regained parity at the breakdown with a physical effort in the final minutes of the first half, but the visitors managed to hang on for a one-point lead at half-time.
The home side made the perfect start to the second half, dominating both territory and possession, which resulted in a try to scrum-half Brendon Leonard who burrowed his way over from close-range.
The Highlanders' pattern frayed with repeated personnel changes, while the Chiefs were also guilty of squandering attacking chances through handling errors and Donald was one of the principal offenders.
After missing a penalty which would have given the Chiefs the comfort of a nine-point lead after 56 minutes, he dropped a difficult pass with the line open only minutes later. He also threw a number of poor passes which took the edge off attacking movements.
Just six points down and with a handful of minutes of the match remaining, the Highlanders were miraculously still in with a shout after Chiefs centre Dwayne Sweeney also failed to find his target at goal.
However, the Chiefs wrapped up a deserved victory one minute from the final whistle when hard-working Messam finished off repeated assaults at the Highlanders' line with a well-earned try.
Tries: Leonard, Messam
Cons: Donald, Nanai-Williams
Pen: Donald 2
Chiefs: 15 Mils Muliaina (c), 14 Lelia Masaga, 13 Richard Kahui, 12 Dwayne Sweeney, 11 Sitiveni Sivivatu, 10 Stephen Donald, 9 Brendon Leonard, 8 Fritz Lee, 7 Scott Waldrom, 6 Liam Messam, 5 Romana Graham, 4 Craig Clarke, 3 Ben Afeaki, 2 Hika Elliot, 1 Toby Smith.
Replacements: 16 Aled de Malmanche, 17 Sona Taumalolo, 18 Isaac Ross, 19 Tanerau Latimer, 20 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 21 Tim Nanai-Williams, 22 Jackson Willison.
Highlanders: 15 Robbie Robinson, 14 James Paterson, 13 Kendrick Lynn, 12 Ben Smith, 11 Siale Piutau, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Jimmy Cowan, 8 Nasi Manu, 7 Alando Soakai, 6 Adam Thomson, 5 Josh Bekhuis, 4 Jarrad Hoeata, 3 Chris King, 2 Jason Rutledge, 1 Jamie Mackintosh (c).
Replacements: 16 Brayden Mitchell, 17 Bronson Murray, 18 Tom Donnelly, 19 Nick Crosswell, 20 Aaron Smith, 21 Matt Saunders, 22 John Hardie.
Referees: Garratt Williamson (New Zealand)