The Chiefs' chances of a Super Rugby three-peat look to be coming to an end after a 29-25 defeat to the Highlanders in Dunedin last night.
The Highlanders' forwards and defence proved too much for the defending champions in the end, while the home side also rode a 13-7 penalty count in their favour, five penalty goals proving crucial in the end with the visitors out-scoring the home side three tries to two.
The Chiefs never gave up and got back to within four points at the end, having led 13-10 at halftime.
The eighth-placed Chiefs return home to play the Hurricanes next Friday night and then finish the regular season a week later in Auckland against the Blues, needing other results to go their way.
The first half was something of a stalemate with neither team really imposing their ball-in-hand game on the other.
The Chiefs had some strong set-piece moments early on in the first half with a couple of Brodie Retallick lineout steals and a scrum tighthead, but their only reward was an Aaron Cruden penalty goal.
Second five-eighth Bundee Aki was held up over the line in the 10th minute, but the ensuing 5m scrum brought a push-off tighthead to the Highlanders that signalled the start of dominance in that area from the home side.
Instead, the first try went to the Highlanders, as man of the moment Malakai Fekitoa powered through the tackles of Cruden and Robbie Fruean before offloading in the tackle of fullback Gareth Anscombe to put former Chiefs winger Patrick Osborne over behind the posts.
Lima Sopoaga's conversion had the Highlanders out to 7-3, but three minutes later the Chiefs' right winger, Dwayne Sweeney, was over for a try of his own.
This came off the back of a strong lineout drive and peel and charge from flanker Tanerau Latimer, Cruden calling play to a big right-hand blindside and stabbing a kick through that bounced away from covering Highlanders fullback Ben Smith and into the hands of Sweeney.
Cruden's wide-angled conversion gave the lead back to the Chiefs and then Anscombe kicked a long-range penalty goal in the 28th minute to make it 13-7, but Sopoaga had the final say from 37m to make the halftime score 13-10.
It took just two minutes of the second spell for Sopoaga to level the scores at 13-13 and while the Chiefs were straight onto attack, they kept turning the ball over when well placed to strike.
On one such occasion, in the 49th minute, Brayden Mitchell got the turnover, Aaron Smith sparked the counter-attack, Fekitoa and then Richard Buckman made big runs downfield before Ben Smith loomed up on the inside to take the final pass and score.
Sopoaga made no mistake with the extras and soon after kicked a penalty to make it 23-13, leaving the Chiefs battling against a home side with all the momentum.
The Chiefs coaches went to the bench but it didn't help an under-pressure scrum which had already lost Retallick to a hip injury.
And another scrum penalty brought Sopoaga's fourth three-pointer to push the lead out to 26-13.
With 15 minutes to play it was desperation stuff from the back-to-back Super Rugby champions and they were able to finish something off in the 67th minute, replacement centre Tim Nanai-Williams dancing through as first receiver off a ruck in front of the Highlanders posts to score. Cruden pushed the conversion out to the right.
With eight minutes left to play the news got worse for the visitors when they were again penalised by referee Garratt Williamson and replacement first-five Hayden Parker made it 29-18.
The Chiefs were not done yet though, picking up a fine strength try to replacement tighthead prop Josh Hohneck that Cruden quickly converted to make it 29-25 with five minutes left to play.
But yet another penalty enabled the Highlanders forwards to close out the match deep in Chiefs territory.
Highlanders 29 (Patrick Osborne, Ben Smith tries; Lima Sopoaga 2 con, 4 pen; Hayden Parker penalty goal) Chiefs 25 (Dwayne Sweeney, Tim Nanai-Williams, Josh Hohneck tries; Aaron Cruden 2 con, Cruden pen, Gareth Anscombe pen). HT: 10-13
- Waikato Times
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