Chiefs go top as Highlanders can't hold on
Aaron Cruden produced a piece of magic to win it for the Chiefs but the Highlanders confirmed tonight in Hamilton they are indeed the real deal in 2014.
The Chiefs took the 21-19 Super Rugby third-round victory at Waikato Stadium thanks to Cruden's conversion of a Charlie Ngatai try he'd helped set up with a wipers kick.
The win meant the back-to-back defending champions get to go into their first bye next week as the only unbeaten team in the New Zealand conference.
But the Highlanders certainly deserved their bonus point out of the game, which they led for 37 minutes, including most of the second half.
The Highlanders stunned the Chiefss at their own game early on, their outstanding defence cutting down all but the 10th minute attack by the Chiefs that led to a fast-hands try by winger Tim Nanai-Williams.
Aaron Cruden's conversion gave the Chiefs a 7-3 lead, but that was the end of the home team's first-half scoring as Highlander Lima Sopoaga banged over four out of four attempts at goal, including the conversion of John Hardie's lineout drive try to put his team ahead 16-7 at the break.
The Chiefs continued last week's penchant for giving away penalties in kickable areas and unlike last week the opposition kicker was on target.
On the other hand Cruden was a little off his kicking game and missed two of his three attempts.
There was an aggression about the Highlanders, who looked determined to knock the back-to-back champions off their stride.
Their big ball runners made inroads up the middle, left winger Malakai Fekitoa and fullback Ben Smith were a constant danger with the ball in hand and Sopoaga kicked cleverly for territory that pinned the Chiefs back in their own half for periods of the opening stanza.
The Chiefs needed to find their game and score points early in the second spell and they did just that, big centre Robbie Fruean heavily involved as they worked their way downfield to force a scrum deep inside the visitors' 22.
From there Tawera Kerr-Barlow burst openside, spun out of tackles and went back to the blindside where he was driven just short of the line. Several pick-and-go dabs at the line by the Chiefs' forwards were finally finished off by co-captain Liam Messam on the open side, Cruden's conversion getting the Chiefs back in the game at 16-14.
The penalties kept coming though and one from a scrum collapse enabled Sopoaga to kick his fifth goal for a 19-14 lead.
But in came the substitutions and with it a stiffening of the Chiefs' resolve. A Winston Stanley intercept might have sewn it up for the visitors but he couldn't hold on and a couple of minutes later replacement loosie Liam Squire made a storming run downfield for the home side.
The ball was moved right, Cruden chipped a crossfield bomb to winger Asaeli Tikoirotuma and he passed infield for second-five Charlie Ngatai to score the try that tied the scores at 19-19.
Cruden had been inconsistent earlier, but he made no mistake with his conversion from near the touchline and suddenly the Chiefs had the lead for the first time in the second half - 21-19.
Three minutes from the end the much vaunted Chiefs defence got a key turnover as the Highlanders threw one last attack at them and standout halfback Tawera Kerr-Barlow, who had just returned from a concussion test, burst away and kicked downfield to make the Chiefs safe.
Chiefs 21 (Tim Nanai-Williams, Liam Messam, Charlie Ngatai tries; Aaron Cruden 3
Highlanders 19 (John Hardie try; Lima Sopoaga conversion, 4 penalty goals).
Halftime: 16-7 Highlanders.
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