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Super Rugby: Highlanders dent the hopes of defending champions the Chiefs
The Highlanders took a big step towards the Super Rugby play-offs with a 29-25 win over the Chiefs in Dunedin.
Some brilliant counterattacking and a dominant set-piece provided the platform for Jamie Joseph’s side to register their eighth win of the season.
Lima Sopoaga landed 16 points and Hayden Parker added a late penalty, while Patrick Osborne and Ben Smith scored the tries which could have ended the Chiefs’ defence of their title.
The Chiefs did cross through Dwayne Sweeney, Tim Nanai-Williams and Josh Hohneck, while Aaron Cruden added a penalty and two conversions and Gareth Anscombe slotted over a three-pointer.
However Dave Rennie’s side ultimately came up short in the must-win encounter - and are now need to beat the Hurricanes and the Blues to have a chance of makign the play-offs.
The Chiefs had got off to an impressive start as Brodie Retallick went close after charging down Ben Smith’s attempted clearance.
However all the defending champions could muster from the early pressure was a penalty from Cruden.
And using their pack to good effect, the Highlanders were able to work their way back into the game. Two scrums against the head, the second leading to a penalty, gave them the position to work a textbook drive from a lineout.
Quick ball followed and the power of Malakai Fekitoa combined with the handling of Ben Smith put Osborne over for his fifth try of the season. Sopoaga converted.
The response from the Chiefs was immediate, though, with Sweeney putting them back in front.
Cruden threaded a beautiful grubber through and the bounce deceived Ben Smith, allowing Sweeney to pounce.
Cruden converted and Anscombe added a 50m penalty to put the Chiefs 13-7 up.
However Sopoaga landed penalties either side of the break to pull the scores level before the Highlanders moved clear.
A brilliant counterattack from turnover ball in their own 22 saw Fekitoa and Richard Buckman make the hard yards before sending Ben Smith over.
Sopoaga added the extras before giving the hosts breathing space with a penalty.
The Highlanders should have wrapped up the win with another counterattack putting Buckman away but Nanai-Williams was able to make a superb covering tackle.
Another Sopoaga penalty did put them 13-points up but Nanai-Williams managed to step his way through to give the Chiefs hope – only for Cruden to miss the conversion.
Parker’s penalty made it 29-18 to the Highlanders but again the Chiefs came back at them, with replacement prop Hohneck barrelling his way over. Cruden’s conversion cut the deficit to four points with five minutes left.
A lack of discipline at the breakdown from the Chiefs allowed the Highlanders to close out the game.