Chiefs survive Highlanders' surge
Chiefs survive Highlanders' surgeSHARE
The win sees the Chiefs move to the top of the New Zealand conference.
The hard-fought New Zealand Derby produced six tries – three belonged to the Chiefs and three to the Highlanders.
There were little separating the sides, however, the difference eventually boiled down to two early successful penalty kicks by Chiefs' flyhalf Damian McKenzie.
The Chiefs took a narrow 13-7 lead at the break.
The opening stages of the match saw a patient and cautious start from both teams, with the Highlanders, dealt an early blow as All Black flyhalf Lima Sopoaga was forced from the field with an Achilles injury in just the fifth minute.
Over a dozen phases hard on attack then followed from the Chiefs as they pressured the Highlanders line until a penalty was blown in their favour which flyhalf McKenzie converted from handy to the posts.
Both teams then enjoyed time in possession, with the home side looking more dangerous on attack but were met by some equally impressive Highlanders defence. Their attacking raid again resulted in three points as McKenzie ended the opening quarter of the match with his second penalty to give his side a six-point lead.
The response came from the visitors as they slowly worked their way downfield, playing more direct and showing good ball retention, before centre Rob Thompson saw some space and placed a well-weighted cross kick for his wing Waisake Naholo who collected and scored in the right-hand corner.
Replacement flyhalf Fletcher Smith nailed the conversion from out wide and the Highlanders, somewhat against the run of play, found themselves in front 7-6 after 25 minutes.
Back to back line breaks from McKenzie and wing Sean Wainui gave the Chiefs a good chance for further points but possession was lost inside the Highlanders 22.
For the final 10 minutes of the half the Chiefs continued to ask questions of the Highlanders with their defence finally cracking just one minute before the break. Under penalty advantage, McKenzie produced a well-placed cross kick for Toni Pulu with the wing jumping high and tapping the ball back inside superbly for fullback Solomon Alaimalo to score.
McKenzie's conversion, on target from near the sideline, was the last play of the half as the Chiefs headed into the changing rooms with a 13-7 lead.
The Chiefs came out firing from the halftime break, with a rampaging attack from deep inside their own territory coming up just 10 metres short, and from the resulting scrum, McKenzie made a dart for the line with hooker Nathan Harris on hand to pick up and burrow his way over.
McKenzie added the extras to all of a sudden take them out to a 13-point lead.
Just like they had in the first half, the Highlanders responded well to conceding points as they steadily worked towards the Chiefs line and, after keeping the Chiefs defence on their toes with a quick tap, halfback Aaron Smith fired a wide pass from a ruck for an unmarked Tevita Li to score.
With momentum in their favour, they soon added further points as Fletcher Smith kicked a penalty to narrow the gap to just five points with 20 minutes remaining.
Two minutes later a charged down kick saw the Highlanders swing onto attack once more, and a scrambling Chiefs defence couldn't recover in time as replacement Sio Tomkinson waltzed through a gap to score, with Fletcher Smith's conversion putting the visitors back in front 22-20.
Their lead didn't last long as some good strong running from both forwards and backs saw the Chiefs charge back into Highlanders territory, and eventually, the movement was finished off out wide by wing Sean Wainui.
McKenzie's perfect night off the tee continued as he drilled the sideline conversion to restored a five-point lead with 10 minutes left to play.
The Highlanders moved towards the Chiefs line to set up a tense finish which was a fitting end to an enthralling contest. But consecutive lineout wins against the throw for the Chiefs helped to relieve the pressure, and they were able to wind the clock down and clear to touch to seal a hard-earned victory.
Man of the match: Our nod goes to Damian McKenzie like always the flyhalf's decision making – whether to kick or run – proved to be the difference between victory and defeat.
Tries: Alaimalo, Harris, Wainui
Cons: McKenzie 3
Pens: McKenzie 2
Tries: Naholo, Li, Tomkinson
Cons: F. Smith 3
Pen: F. Smith
Chiefs: 15 Solomon Alaimalo, 14 Toni Pulu, 13 Anton Lienert-Brown, 12 Johnny Fa'auli, 11 Sean Wainui, 10 Damian McKenzie, 9 Brad Weber, 8 Taleni Seu, 7 Sam Cane (co-captain), 6 Liam Messam, 5 Tyler Ardron, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Angus Ta'avao, 2 Nathan Harris, 1 Aidan Ross.
Replacements: 16 Liam Polwart, 17 Karl Tu'inukaufe, 18 Jeff Thwaites, 19 Pita Gus Sowakula, 20 Lachlan Boshier, 21 Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, 22 Marty McKenzie, 23 Charlie Ngatai (co-captain).
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith (co-captain), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Matt Faddes, 12 Rob Thompson, 11 Tevita Li, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 Dillon Hunt, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Josh Dickson, 4 Jackson Hemopo, 3 Siate Tokolahi, 2 Ash Dixon (co-captain), 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown.
Replacements: 16 Greg Pleasants-Tate, 17 Aki Seiuli, 18 Tyrel Lomax, 19 Tom Franklin, 20 Shannon Frizell, 21 Josh Renton, 22 Fletcher Smith, 23 Patelsio Tomkinson.
Referee: Glen Jackson (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Ben O'Keeffe (New Zealand), Brendon Pickerill (New Zealand)
TMO: Glenn Newman (New Zealand)
Source: @ChiefsRugby & @rugby365com