The Highlanders are through to the Super Rugby semi-finals following a thrilling victory over the Chiefs at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin. The hosts scored two tries to one in a match that lived up to all its pre-match hype, and surely sent the 22,000-odd fans home knowing they'd got their money's worth.
The hosts trailed 9-8 at the break but quickly grabbed the lead after the break and held on for a 10-point victory. The Highlanders will have to wait until the result of the second qualifying final is in before they learn the name of their semi-finals opponents; the match between the Stormers and Brumbies in Cape Town to determine whether the Highlanders head to Wellington to face the Hurricanes or cross the Tasman to take on the Waratahs.
The game had earlier exploded from the outset with the Highlanders appearing to score within two minutes of the opening whistle. A blindside dart from Aaron Smith and a powerful run from hooker Liam Coltman got the hosts on the front foot, before Lima Sopoaga dropped a pin-point cross-kick over to Patrick Osborne who collected on the first bounce and touched down in the corner. But referee Chris Pollock called for the Television Match Official on the suspicion that winger Waisake Naholo had put a foot in touch before offloading to Coltman. The video replays seemed to suggest he hadn't but the call went against the Highlanders much to the dismay of the home fans.
The hosts did put the first points on the board a couple of minutes later when Sopoaga kicked a penalty; but it was cold comfort for what looked to be a legitimate five-pointer. The Highlanders will have only been furthered angered moments after the restart when Chiefs fly-half Andrew Horrell levelled the scores; Pollock warning captains Ben Smith and Liam Messam after some heated opening exchanges. Having missed an earlier opportunity to take the lead, Horrell was again wide on 18 minutes in a worrying sign for the Chiefs.
The Highlanders had seen little of the ball after the furious opening but they finally found some possession after the quarter mark with Richard Buckman and Aaron Smith prominent. But just when the hosts looked to be threatening, Sonny Bill Williams produced a thumping tackle on Elliot Dixon to force a mistake.
The Highlanders wouldn't have to wait too long for points however and it was two of their best all season that did the damage. A scrum 15 metres in from the touchline presented Aaron Smith with a workable blindside and the All Blacks scrum-half made the most of it as he set off and unloaded to Naholo; the winger then passed back in-field to his scrum-half before getting the ball back once more to score in the corner in a superb oine-two punch. Sopoaga was unable to land the conversion from wide out; the Highlanders leading 8-3 after 25 minutes. A Horrell penalty soon reduced the gap to just two points however, and probably reflected the closeness of the opening half-hour.
A failed Highlanders counter-attack then presented the Chiefs with an excellent opportunity eight minutes out from the break. A scrum over by the left touchline gave the visitors virtually the entire width of the field to use but Highlanders centre Malakai Fekitoa produced a perfect read in defence to hammer Horrell and shut down the Chiefs' backline.
The first-half continued at a furious pace right through to the closing minutes before the Chiefs were awarded a penalty when Highlanders co-captain Nasi Manu was ruled off-side. There was a question as to whether the advantage had been played out, but Pollock came back for the penalty right in front and Horrell made no mistake to send the visitors into half-time at 9-8 to the good.
The opening to the second half was almost a carbon copy of the first as the Highlanders flew out of the sheds; but there would be no TMO interference this time around. A threat throughout the first half, Ben Smith set about a counter-attack and produced a brilliant offload for Naholo, who carried the ball into the Chiefs' 22. That sequence broke down, but the Highlanders were soon awarded a scrum over by the right touchline and just as it had been in for the hosts first-half five-pointer, Aaron Smith again combined with Naholo to give the winger a second try. Sopoaga landed the extras from the touchline to give the Highlanders the dream start to the second half.
Chiefs full-back Damian McKenzie had enjoyed a solid opening 40 minutes and he again looked dangerous in the early stages of the second half. A couple of nice runs on the counter came to no avail however as the visitors continued to make mistakes with ball in hand, and the Highlanders found a more balanced approach at the breakdown having conceded a number of first-half penalties. The Chiefs, meanwhile, seemed to have lost their way in that area and it cost them three points on 56 minutes as Sopoaga kicked the Highlanders out to an 18-9 lead.
The Chiefs needed one of their All Blacks stars to step up and their prayers were answered by none other than the reigning World Rugby Player of the Year, Brodie Retallick. The hosts had been granted some much-needed field position following a highly-technical off-side penalty from Pollock and, after rumbling through the forwards for a number of phases, Retallick received the ball on the short-side, lowered his body-height, and forced his way over from close range. Horrell missed the conversion but the gap was now just four points and a thrilling final quarter beckoned.
Sopoaga extended the lead back outr to seven points with a penalty on 65 minutes after Chiefs prop Ben Tameifuna failed to heed the breakdown warnings of Pollock and flopped straight on top of the Highlanders' ball.
The Chiefs had a couple of opportunities to close the gap inside the final 10 minutes but they were repelled by the home side; Sopoaga securing the Highlanders' a semi-final date with his fourth penalty right on full-time.