The Chiefs left it late before fighting back from a 19-point deficit to beat the Lions 36-29 in Hamilton on Saturday in the Super 14.
They're rarely competitive at the tournament's business end, but they have two or three stunning performances every year. Today was one. The Lions came, expected to be thumped by the free-running Chiefs, and instead gave the home side an almighty scare before running out of steam in the final 20.
It was hard to believe this was the same Lions team that was so witless against the Stormers not a month ago. Yet they fell foul of the same failing: fitness. With 20 minutes to go, the Lions led 29-10, but the tackles started to slip, the retreating sapped the remaining energy and fourteen minutes later it was 36-29.
So credit to the Chiefs too, in a super game of rugby. They had not been able to match the intensity of the Lions for much of the game, but remained patient and finished the game off clinically.
The impact players did exactly what they were supposed to - the quality the Chiefs ended up throwing off the bench played a big factor in the win. Lions reserves were unable to front up in the same way and were certainly inferior to their opposite numbers.
The mopst poignant stat of the game was the second half handling errors. One to each team, a symbol of the excellence on display. The Lions have just cause to feel hard done-by - against any other opposition, their performance would have netted a handsome victory.
The chiefs are not any other opposition though. Their ability to c;law their way back into this suggests that the inconsistencies of the past may have been swallowed up by a greater ability to dig deep and win which bodes well for their assault on this year's tournament.
They sit atop the table on Saturday, for a few hours at least. They are the top scorers, the top tryscorers, they are playing the best rugby. Only in defence are there still some nagging questions and they are yet to hit the road. These are serious title contenders, however.
The Lions took the lead with a brilliant try, when Andre Pretorius - who might privately be reflecting on the three penalty shots he missed, including a howler in front of the posts in the first half - showed and went through the 10-12 channel and fed Jano Vermaak inside him for the opener.
That preceded a spell of heavy Chiefs pressure, but the Lions fought with vigorous gain-line tackling and forced their hosts into some running that was fancy and skilful but far too flat. In the end, it did force a penalty as the Lions' defence stretched, with which Donald reduced the arrears to 7-3, and then a rare lapse in the defence allowed Dwayne Sweeney to race home under the sticks from 40m.
After Pretorius had missed his shocker, the Lions took the lead. Luis Ludik - his team's outstanding back-line player - turned ball over at a breakdown, the ball was spun wide left and Henno Mentz's grubber kick was chased down for the score by Jaque Fourie.
Adrenaline levels rose. Pretorius, no doubt encouraged by the uncertainties displayed by Sione Lauaki and others under a high ball, rained them down. Under one such, Lelia Masaga jumped for a catch and was tackled mid-air by Mentz.
Anger levels rose and at a ruck two minutes later the forwards boiled over. Referee Paul Marks did very well to realise it was a case of getting the tension out of the system and merely spoke to the captains.
A minute later Pretorius dropped a goal out of nothing to give his side a 15-10 lead, then the Lions claimed a crucial score on the stroke of half-time, with Lauaki spilling another high ball and the Lions flinging it wide left for Fourie to score.
The Chiefs, still struggling to cope with the energy and intensity of their opponents, suffered a further blow early in the second half when Masaga left the field with what looked like a troublesome knee injury.
But they were working their way into the game well, keeping it tighter than usual, until disaster struck when Earl Rose picked off a Donald pass to steam home from 80m under the posts. 29-10, and a bonus point to boot.
Yet there were signs of cracks in the away side's veneer. Alberts had already been sent to the bin for kicking the ball out of Brendon Leonard's hands and there was a steady stream of free-kicks coming that had Marks warning the team on a couple of occasions.
On the hour mark, Sweeney scored his second after surges by Aled de Malmanche and Liam Messam that saw the Lions defenders fall off tackles.
Five minutes later, Ludik's ill-conceived chip out of defence was countered by Leonard down the left, then the ball was swung crisply right for Jackson Willison to score.
Messam sparked the next, again breaking through tired tackles to within a couple of metres before Hika Elliot stormed home.
Donald converted all three tries and the Chiefs had the lead at 31-29.
They weren't quite done, as Callum Bruce grubbered through and Sweeney chased down Ã la Fourie in the first half for a 36-29 lead.
Had Donald converted, the Lions would have been robbed of their second bonus point, which would have been harsh. But they had nothing left to offer in the way of fightback, not even when Lauaki spilled another high ball on his own 22. Donald closed out the game with some astute kicking for territory. Chiefs to for the title? Not a bad bet at all...
Man of the match: Aled de Malmanche was superb going forward, as was his replacement Hika Elliot. Liam Messam also had a good game, while Louis Ludik, Todd Clever, Jano Vermaak and Andre Pretorius shone for the visitors. But a hat-trick of tries tells its own story: Dwayne Sweeney scoops the gong.
For the Chiefs:
Tries: Sweeney 3, Willison, Elliot
Cons: Donald 4
For the Lions:
Tries: Vermaak, Fourie 2, Rose
Cons: Pretorius 3
Drop goal: Pretorius
Chiefs: 15 Mils Muliaina (c), 14 Lelia Masaga, 13 Richard Kahui, 12 Callum Bruce, 11 Dwayne Sweeney, 10 Stephen Donald, 9 Brendon Leonard, 8 Sione Lauaki, 7 Tanerau Latimer, 6 Liam Messam, 5 Kevin O'Neill, 4 Craig Clarke, 3 Ben May, 2 Aled de Malmanche, 1 Sona Taumalolo.
Replacements: 16 Hika Elliot, 17 James McGougan, 18 Toby Lynn, 19 Serge Lilo, 20 Toby Morland, 21 Mike Delany, 22 Jackson Willison.
Lions: 15 Louis Ludik, 14 Shandre Frolick, 13 Jaque Fourie, 12 Doppies la Grange, 11 Henno Mentz, 10 Andre Pretorius, 9 Chris Jonck, 8 Ernst Joubert, 7 Todd Clever, 6 Cobus Grobbelaar (c), 5 Anton van Zyl, 4 Jannes Labuschagne, 3 Lawrence Sephaka, 2 Willie Wepener, 1 Heinke van der Merwe.
Replacements: 16 Hans van Dyk, 17 Gert Muller, 18 Gerhard Mostert, 19 Willem Alberts, 20 Jano Vermaak, 21 Earl Rose, 22 Deon van Rensburg.
Referee: Paul Marks (Aus)
Touch judges: Chris Pollock (NZ) Glenn Newman (NZ)
TMO: Jonathon White (NZ)