Chiefs return to action with win over Highlanders
The Highlanders' season ended on a disappointingly flat note at Dunedin Stadium last night.
The 27-21 result effectively knocks the Highlanders out of the chase for the final wildcard spot with two rounds to play and leaves the southern franchise travelling to Brisbane next week for their final game of the season with little but pride to play for.
Penalties either side of halftime to Chiefs first-five Aaron Cruden, even if he was running on one leg, were blows to the Highlanders' ambitions after they had dominated territory through the first half.
Despite playing most of the rugby, the Highlanders found themselves chasing the scoreboard after tries to Tim Nanai-Williams and Robbie Robinson in the first half.
Both sides were guilty of the sort of errors you would expect from teams trying to regain their rhythm after a three-week break and the lack of atmosphere from the 17,401-strong crowd at the stadium did nothing to lift the home team.
The second half erupted after late shoulder charge by a lethargic Sonny Bill Williams – perhaps preparing himself for when he returns to the 13-man code – on Nick Crosswell.
With the ensuing dispute, the game halted and the penalty eventually led to Andrew Hore somehow being awarded a try in the murky depths of a goal-line ruck.
The Highlanders were good at scrum time, winning a couple of turnovers, while Adam Thomson was effective at winning attacking kickoffs.
But they were guilty of not being able to lift their intensity when they had the Chiefs stretched and the table-toppers were only too happy to punish them when they attacked on turn over ball.
After running the ball to either touchline early on and then attacking in close, the Highlanders were not able to recycle the sort of quick ball which makes their best players dangerous and they had no answer to some good Chiefs defence.
One of the main benefactors was Chiefs fullback Robinson, who continued the good form he showed on the same ground in the North v South game during the test window.
Robinson didn't have it all his own way, at one point running the ball back into a wall made up of his Southland team-mates Jamie Mackintosh and Tim Boys, with a predictable result.
Around the park, Tawera Kerr-Barlow earned a points-advantage over All Black halfback Aaron Smith as the Chiefs made life difficult for the opposition by turning the back of the ruck into a snakepit.
Kerr-Barlow was prominent in the Nanai-Williams first-half try and generally made a nuisance of himself. Highlanders centre Tamati Ellison had a quiet night and then limped off late with a leg injury, but Phil Burleigh worked hard inside him and saved what seemed a certain try in the second half to keep his team in the contest.
A late try by Hosea Gear had the Highlanders within a converted try of victory with five minutes left but it was too little, too late for the home team.
Chiefs 27 (Tim Nanai-Williams, Robbie Robinson tries; Aaron Cruden con, 5 pen
Highlanders 21 (Andrew Hore, Hosea Gear tries; Chris Noakes 3 pen, Mike Delany con)