Defending Vodacom Super Rugby champions, the Chiefs, had to overcome a 16-7 halftime deficit to storm home and claim a close 21-19 victory in their derby game against the Highlanders in Hamilton on Saturday.
It took a late try by Charlie Ngatai in the 67th minute to steal the lead back and then some stern defence as the Highlanders tried everything they could to get the victory, but to no avail.
Still, the game will go down as one of the more entertaining, with high skill levels and the willingness of both sides to attack being the basis of a very exciting game.
Following their victory over the Blues last weekend and this performance, the Highlanders have shown they will be a force to reckon with this year and are sure to give a number of teams nightmares when they have to face them.
The Chiefs, though, still are classy, and have enough strike power both up front and at the back to have confidence in reaching a third consecutive title this year.
Yet, for a large period of this game, it was the visitors who ruled the roost and their surge just before halftime made many believe they were capable of scoring an upset.
It was the Highlanders who opened the scoring with a penalty early on, but one which was quickly negated thanks to some excellent interplay and soft hands by the Chiefs, as the ball found its way to Tim Nanai-Williams for the opening try.
Lima Sopoaga slotted a second penalty to bring his side within a single point of the champs, and then the Highlanders started dominating, putting together phases and making significant gains across the advantage line when they attacked.
It was an old fashioned lineout maul that did it for them, as the juggernaut wasn’t defended well by the Chiefs and John Hardy had an easy touchdown at the back of the moving maul to take the lead.
Sopoaga capitalised on more pressure late in the first half as the scoreline was stretched and the visitors led 16-7 into the break.
Whatever Dave Rennie said at halftime woke the Chiefs up, and it was clear that they were a lot more direct, a lot more focused and a lot more determined as the two sides slugged it out early in the second half.
With good front-foot ball, it wasn’t long before the Highlanders were defending their own line and, after a number of the forwards bashed it up, flanker Liam Messam found the hole to go over and Cruden added the extras to put the home side within two.
Sopoaga extended the lead but the Chiefs pressure was telling, and it took some excellent vision and a galloping run from flank Liam Squire that took the ball 30 metres up field, and ended with a cross kick from Cruden to Ngatai that was collected to score.
As the clock ticked down, the Chiefs showed their experience and played the percentages, but the Highlanders never gave up and simply ran out of time.
That a match of this quality had to have a loser was a pity, but it was also a reminder it will take a lot to beat the Chiefs this season.
Chiefs – Tries: Tim Nanai-Williams, Liam Messam, Charlie Ngatai. Conversions: Aaron Cruden (3)
Highlanders – Try: John Hardie. Conversion: Lima Sopoaga. Penalties: Lima Sopoaga (4)