Highlanders squeeze past Chiefs to move up
Malakai Fekitoa has continued his outstanding season as the Highlanders took a significant step towards the Super Rugby playoffs with a 29-25 win over the Chiefs tonight.
In a game where the Highlanders took until 30 minutes to go to grab the lead, the blockbusting centre was the home team's go-to man when they needed a game breaker to bust them out of their post-June window funk.
How good is this for the long-suffering Highlanders rugby fan?
The southern franchise still needs to beat either the Crusaders or Waratahs away from home over the next two weeks, but at least their fate is firmly in their own mitts.
The Highlanders' win cements their place in the top six with two games to play, while the two-time defending champions are now in danger territory.
Aaron Cruden was good for the Chiefs, along with Bundee Ahki and the giant nuisance that is Brodie Retallick, but it was the 80 metre breakout try from Ben Smith, featuring a Brayden Mitchell turnover and big plays from Fekitoa and Richard Buckman, which swung the game and both teams' seasons.
Rookie lock Tom Franklin should be happy with his starting debut, which included one moment where he seemed to hold up the entire Chiefs forward pack on his own.
The opening try of the game was a beauty, Shaun Treeby stranded in midfield before he restarted and got over the advantage line.
Fekitoa then charged ahead and got the ball to Ben Smith, who offloaded in the tackle with a difficult pass for Patrick Osborne which he caught on his fingertips before running around under the posts.
Unfortunately, that moment was like a diamond in the coal-bin.
The first 20 minutes of the game was a litany of set piece farces as both teams struggled to settle after the June window.
Even Ben Smith was having problems with his lines, an early clearing kick charged by Retallick, who left the game in the second half with a hip injury, and a rough read of a rougher bounce helping Dwayne Sweeney to latch onto an Aaron Cruden speculator for the Chiefs' first try.
Thankfully both teams eventually settled into their work, Gareth Anscombe's booming penalty edging the Chiefs out to a 13-10 lead at halftime.
Sopoaga's conversion of the Ben Smith try saw him move past Highlanders assistant coach Tony Brown's season record of 143 points, set in 2000.
The Highlanders scored 16 unanswered points after halftime to seize control of the game.
The Chiefs struck back with 12 minutes to play through Tim Nanai-Williams, and then Josh Hohneck to get within four points with as many minutes left on the clock.
Meanwhile, Highlanders midfielder Phil Burleigh has signed a two year deal with Edinburgh and will leave at the end of the Super Rugby season. Burleigh has played for the Highlanders since 2012.
Stags prop JP Koen has been drafted into the Highlanders squad for the remainder of the season.
HIGHLANDERS 29 (Patrick Osborne, Ben Smith tries; Lima Sopoaga 2 con, 4 pen, Hayden Parker pen) CHIEFS 25 (Dwayne Sweeney, Tim Nanai-Williams, Josh Hohneck tries; Aaron Cruden pen, 2 con, Gareth Anscombe pen) HT: 10-13.
AS IT HAPPENED