A thrilling late try from Lelia Masaga handed the Chiefs an unlikely 14-10 Super 14 victory over the Highlanders in Invercargill on Saturday.
Masaga danced through four would-be tacklers with 13 minutes to go for the winning score of a match in which the dancing winger proved himself once again to be a cut above the rest.
We did at least get some fluid passages of play, in stark contrast to the last Highlanders home game. Both first-half tries were excellently-worked scores and as the teams traded late blows both got their act together and produced an exciting final 20.
Otherwise, it was a pretty ordinary affair, brightened occasionally by Masaga's thrilling running. If anyone in this tournament so far has put his hand up for an international call-up it is he. There was rarely a moment of possession from which he failed to beat a defender and his confidence to take people on is right up. He can only hope he has not peaked too early.
But it was the home side who drew first blood. With the forwards getting the upper hand, Ben Smith timed a run off Daniel Bowden's shoulder perfectly and pulled the Chiefs' defence in before firing out a long pass to Fetu'u Vainikolo - also one who always looked dangerous on the ball - and the winger raced home unopposed.
For the next quarter of an hour the game belonged to the Chiefs loose trio and Masaga, with Messam particularly outstanding for his work-rate. There could have been an equalising try for wing James Wilson off an interception, but no sooner had he got his hands on the ball than he pulled up lame with a hamstring tear.
When the try did come it was a direct result of the havoc wreaked by Masaga who twice tap-danced his way down the right hand side before Tanerau Latimer took the ball off Toby Morland to score with ease. Donald's conversion levelled matters.
We can conveniently forget about the next 40 minutes. There was a fair bit of kicking, most of it less than average which, coupled with a plethora of knock-ons, made for a spectacle in which the players ran round in herds rather than shaped sporting teams.
Referee Matt Goddard was given a fair bit of stick from the fans but he was consistent and tried his best to keep the breakdown clean, even sending David Hall and Mils Muliaina to the bin but it didn't work.
With 19 minutes to go, Goddard resorted to full penalties instead of free-kicks and hey presto! A more open and structured game! We can only hope this season is the last of the cheats' char- sorry, sanctions ELV.
Bowden goaled the first of these penalties to give his team the lead, but four minutes later Masaga took the ball wide on the right, handed off one tackler, stepped the next, handed off the third and slipped through the fourth to dive over in the right-hand corner, Stephen Donald converting majestically.
The Highlanders upped their game, with the forwards stringing together a mean run of rucks and mauls near the Chiefs 22, but one of the forwards just clung on too long on the ground and the chance went begging. Bowden also saw an easy penalty attempt go wide - again we can point to the measure of penalties instead of free-kicks as helping the game though. Bowden could have closed the gap with the kick after a good spell of pressure, the Chiefs refrained from putting their hands in with penalties being awarded where they might not have done when risking a free-kick.
But the Chiefs held, even getting together a spell of pressure of their own near the end. They couldn't manage to kill the game off, but again the Highlanders came up short when given a couple of opportunities at the end.
Man of the match: Only one candidate: Lelia Masaga. More of the same please!
For the Highlanders:
For the Chiefs:
Tries: Latimer, Masaga
Cons: Donald 2
Yellow cards: Hall (30, Highlanders, killing the ball), Muliaina (36, Chiefs, offside - repeated infringement)
Highlanders: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Ben Smith, 13 Jason Shoemark, 12 Johnny Leota, 11 Fetu'u Vainikolo, 10 Daniel Bowden, 9 Jimmy Cowan (c), 8 Steven Setephano, 7 Tim Boys, 6 Adam Thomson,5 Hayden Triggs, 4 Josh Bekhuis, 3 Clint Newland, 2 David Hall,1 Chris King.
Replacements: 16 Jason Rutledge, 17 Anthony Perenise, 18 Tom Donnelly, 19 George Naoupu, 20 Sean Romans, 21 Matthew Berquist, 22 Kendrick Lynn/Jayden Hayward.
Chiefs: 15 Mils Muliaina (c), 14 Lelia Masaga, 13 Richard Kahui, 12 Jackson Willison, 11 James Wilson, 10 Stephen Donald, 9 Toby Morland, 8 Liam Messam, 7 Serge Lilo, 6 Tanerau Latimer, 5 Kevin O'Neill, 4 Craig Clarke, 3 Ben May, 2 Aled de Malmanche, 1 Sona Taumalolo.
Replacements: 16 Hika Elliot, 17 Joe McGougan, 18 Mark Burman, 19 Sione Lauaki, 20 Brendon Leonard, 21 Mike Delany, 22 Dwayne Sweeney.
Referee: Matt Goddard (Australia)
Touch judges: Vinny Munro (New Zealand), Josh Noonan (New Zealand)
Television match official: Shane McDermott (New Zealand)
Assessor: Arrie Schoonwinkel (South Africa)