The Highlanders' chances of making the Super Rugby finals took a turn for the worst after losing 27-21 to the Chiefs in Dunedin.
The Highlanders' chances of making the Super Rugby finals took a turn for the worst after losing 27-21 to the Chiefs in Dunedin on Friday.
Both sides crossed the whitewash twice, but the boot of Aaron Cruden proved to be the difference between the two sides as the All Blacks pivot punished persistent ill-discipline by the Highlanders.
Cruden contributed 17 points from the tee, including five penalties, to help his team cement their place on top of the tournament standings as the leaders all but secured themselves a home semi-final.
The Highlanders did manage to bag a losing bonus point, which could prove vital for the southerners heading into the final straight with a bye and a must-win clash against the Reds coming up in the next fortnight.
Chiefs wing Tim Nanai-Williams opened the scoring in the third minute for the visitors after Highlanders halfback Aaron Smith was caught in possession. Sonny Bill Williams and Tawera Kerr-Barlow combined brilliantly on the counter to release Nanai-Williams, who just did enough to score.
Cruden duly converted and the Chiefs had a handy 7-0 lead with barely five minutes gone on the clock
The Highlanders responded with a simple penalty from pivot Chris Noakes but it was cancelled out by Cruden's first three-pointer of the night.
The home side were dominating possession and territory but they were only able to add two further penalties from Noakes as the Chiefs defence held firm.
And the Chiefs made them pay before the break – with another error allowing the visitors to turn defence into attack. Noakes' clearance was charged down, allowing the Chiefs to snaffle possession and although Kerr-Barlow was tackled he was able to combine with Williams once again to release full-back Robbie Robinson to run in unopposed.
Cruden missed the conversion but he slotted over a penalty after the hooter had sounded to put the Chiefs 18-9 in front at half-time. And Cruden was on target again 20 seconds after the break as the Highlanders infringed from the restart.
Ten minutes in, a Sonny Bill Williams shoulder charge started some pushing and shoving between several players. Williams was penalised, the Highlanders drove for the line and were rewarded when Andrew Hore was adjudged to have touched down by the TMO.
Noakes missed the conversion to leave the home side down by seven with half an hour left.
Cruden then gave the Chiefs a 10-point cushion with a well-struck penalty before following it up with his sixth successful shot at goal.
However the Highlanders refused to give up and Hosea Gear's try with five minutes left – the winger powering over from close range – and Mike Delany's conversion set up a nail-biting finale.
The home side gave their all in the final moments – with play continuing long after the hooter – but the Chiefs were able to keep them out.
Tries: Hore, Gear
Pens: Noakes 3
Tries: Nanai-Williams, Robinson
Pens: Cruden 5
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith, 14 Kade Poki, 13 Tamati Ellison, 12 Phil Burleigh, 11 Hosea Gear, 10 Chris Noakes, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu, 7 Tim Boys, 6 Adam Thomson, 5 Nick Crosswell, 4 Jarrad Hoeata, 3 Ma'afu Fia, 2 Jason Rutledge, 1 Jamie Mackintosh (c).
Replacements: 16 Andrew Hore, 17 Chris King, 18 Josh Bekhuis, 19 James Haskell, 20 Jimmy Cowan, 21 Mike Delany, 22 Buxton Popoali'i.
Chiefs: 15 Robbie Robinson, 14 Tim Nanai-Williams, 13 Jackson Willison, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 Asaeli Tikoirotuma, 10 Aaron Cruden, 9 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 8 Kane Thompson, 7 Tanerau Latimer, 6 Liam Messam, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Craig Clarke (c), 3 Ben Tameifuna, 2 Mahonri Schwalger, 1 Toby Smith.
Replacements: 16 Hika Elliot, 17 Sona Taumalolo, 18 Michael Fitzgerald, 19 Sam Cane, 20 Brendon Leonard, 21 Andrew Horrell, 22 Lelia Masaga.
Referee: Garratt Williamson (New Zealand)