Chiefs down Highlanders
The Chiefs took another step closer to securing the New Zealand conference crown as they won a tense and entertaining battle against the Highlanders 27-21 in Dunedin on Friday.
The result all but ends the Highlanders' hopes of making the playoffs, with some mathematical calculations needed to boost what little chance they have left as the sides go into the last two weeks of the regular season.
But it does bode well for the Sharks and South Africa’s hopes of having three teams in the six-team playoff rounds. While the Highlanders are in sixth position at the moment, they have now played a game more than the Sharks, who will earn four points from a bye this weekend, and the Hurricanes and two more than the Reds.
In a game where both sides scored two tries each, it was eventually the all-round game of All Black flyhalf Aaron Cruden that proved the difference, although the rest of his side’s streetsmarts at this level contributed heavily to keeping out the Highlanders in the final minutes.
But the home side can feel proud of their effort, especially after they fell behind early in the game, with Tim Nanai Williams finishing off a perfect break from Sonny Bill Williams after Highlanders scrumhalf Aaron Smith lost the ball in contact.
Despite being under pressure from the Chiefs, the home side found their feet quickly, and then proceeded to dominate the latter part of the first half, and given their possession would have felt a bit disappointed at trailing 9-10 just before the break.
It got worse as fullback Robbie Robertson found space on the outside to dot down for a simple try that would have had the Highlanders defence fuming.
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After falling further behind to an early Cruden penalty, the Highlanders bounced back through some Chiefs indiscipline, as Sonny Bill was penalised for a late tackle without arms and was lucky not to receive a yellow card, especially for the fracas that almost turned into a brawl after the incident. From the lineout, the Highlanders put pressure on the Chiefs and drove them back onto their own line, with Andrew Hore placing the ball over the line for the try.
While the TMO had no doubt to award it, it did bring the question of whether the melee of bodies was actually a ruck, and whether Hore had rights to play the ball when it was on the ground. Still, the try stood and the Highlanders were back in the game.
As the minutes started counting down, two more Cruden penalties put the Chiefs out of reach as the Highlanders tried desperately to get themselves back in the game.
They managed to burrow winger Hosea Gear over from close range, and launched a final 17-phase assault from within their own half, only to be stopped by the Chiefs defence and listen to the final whistle go.
The Chiefs face a tougher game next week when they take on the Crusaders in a match that is sure to settle the New Zealand conference once and for all.
Highlanders – Try: Andrew Hore, Hosea Gear. Conversion: Mike Delany. Penalties: Chris Noake (3)
Chiefs –Try: Tim Nanai-Williams, Robbie Robinson . Conversion: Aaron Cruden. Penalties: Aaron Cruden (5)