The Chiefs defence has done it again, securing them a certain place in the Super Rugby playoffs with a 27-21 victory over the Highlanders in Dunedin.
But they had to hang on at the end as the home side sensed a late chance indoors at the Forsyth Barr Stadium in front of a 17,409 crowd.
It finished two tries all in what turned out to be a highly entertaining match, both teams guinea pigs for what to do coming off the new three-week break to accommodate the international window.
The Chiefs got their tries in the first half and the Highlanders in the second, although ironically possession and territory statistics would have suggested it should have been the other way around.
The Chiefs again operated off minority possession in the first spell, despite some aggressive breakdown work, but again their defence was the key, keeping the Highlanders to just three Chris Noakes penalty goals for an 18-9 halftime advantage.
But the visitors made the most of their rare visits to the Highlanders’ 22, scoring tries at either end of the half.
Right winger Tim Nanai-Williams, celebrating his first start for a long time, scored the first one inside the first two minutes, lunging one-handed over the line to the right of the posts after being ankle-tapped just short.
But the initial creation came from Sonny Bill Williams working a cut off Liam Messam – again a standout for his tough tackling – and then first-five Aaron Cruden in support.
Cruden, who seemed clearly slowed by his Achilles tendon injury, kicked the conversion and later added a couple of penalty goals later, while fullback Robbie Robinson scored a try three minutes from the end when livewire halfback Tawera Kerr-Barlow made a break and offloaded to Williams who found lock Brodie Retallick in support.
It was then a case of a simple draw and pass from the big man to put the speedy Robinson away in the corner.
In between there were Noakes’ three penalty goals but it was slim reward for the Highlanders 68 per cent share of territory and 53 per cent possession.
The Chiefs not only scored the last points of the first half but Cruden got his third penalty goal just a minute after the restart and when Noakes missed from 39m soon after the 21-9 advantage gave the visitors a huge boost.
Soon after Williams fired up and starting shaping to show his boxing skills after Nick Crosswell reacted to a shoulder charge from him, it became handbags at two paces for a number from both sides, and the Chiefs seem flustered as a result.
Kane Thompson failed to tidy a wild defensive lineout tap near his own line and despite it looking like a ruck on the line halftime replacement Andrew Hore was awarded the try by the television match official, Noakes missing the conversion to leave the score at 21-14.
It was certainly an all-action opening 15 minutes of the second spell with Robinson soon after making a superb break that led to a period of Chiefs pressure that the home side managed to successfully absorb.
The Chiefs then put themselves under pressure from poor passing before they got back on attack and were confident they had got prop Toby Smith over for a try in the left corner only for the video footage to be inconclusive.
But a 64th minute Cruden penalty made amends and with a 10-point buffer the Chiefs entered the final quarter of an hour in a position of strength.
Greater possession by the Chiefs than enjoyed in the first spell compared to the home side started to take its toll on the Highlanders’ frustration and the penalties flowed, Cruden banging another one over in the 68th minute to make it 27-14.
But just when the Chiefs thought they’d done enough to wrap up the game the Highlanders sniffed a chance, Gear getting over amongst the forwards and replacement Mike Delany banging over the conversion to turn it into a six-point game at 27-21.
All of a sudden the Highlanders were throwing the ball wide with confidence and the Chiefs defending desperately, but luckily for them the pressure was relieved by a penalty awarded by Garratt Williamson, followed soon after by a free kick that had the crowd erupting in boos.
It was enough for the Chiefs to survive and take the win that takes some pressure off going into the home game next Friday against the Crusaders.
Scorers: Chiefs 27(Tim Nanai-Williams, Robbie Robinson tries; Aaron Cruden conversion, 5 penalty goals) Highlanders 21 (Andrew Hore, Hosea Gear tries; Mike Delany conversion; Chris Noakes 3 penalty goals). Halftime 18-9 Chiefs.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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