Highlanders beat Chiefs 29-25 in Super Rugby
DUNEDIN, New Zealand (AP) — The Chiefs’ two-year reign as Super Rugby champions likely ended on Friday when they were beaten 29-25 by the Highlanders, who stayed on track for their first playoffs place in 12 years.
All Blacks fullback Ben Smith finished a brilliant counterattacking try in the 49th minute to give the Highlanders a decisive lead after they trailed 13-10 at halftime. Flyhalf Lima Sopoaga added 16 points - six goals from six attempts - to reach 150 points for the season, a record for the Dunedin-based franchise.
The Hamilton-based Chiefs started the match in eighth place, clinging to playoffs contention, and, with only two matches remaining in the regular season, likely can’t achieve the top-six finish which would allow them to contest the postseason.
The Highlanders were in fifth place when the Super Rugby season resumed after a month-long break for June internationals. The win moved them temporarily atop the New Zealand conference at the start of the 17th of 19 regular-season rounds.
Their lead peaked at 13 points, 26-13, with Sopaga’s final penalty and they led by 11 points, 29-18, when Sopoaga’s replacement, Hayden Parker, added his only penalty in the 71st minute. But the Chiefs fought back on both occasions with tries which demonstrated their fierce determination to defend the Super Rugby title they won in 2012 and 2013.
Smith’s try was the turning point in a tight match. All Blacks scrumhalf Aaron Smith started the move with a daring breakout from within his own 22. New All Blacks center Malakai Fekitoa carried the movement on with a powerful run before turning the ball outside to winger Richard Buckman, who was the player of the match.
Buckman drew the last defender, then turned the ball back infield to Ben Smith who scored, giving the Highlanders their first lead since the 13th minute, when winger Patrick Osborne scored their opening try.
“It means a lot to us,” Highlanders captain Nasi Manu said. “We’ve really worked hard in the break and the result was awesome.
“We knew the Chiefs were going to come down as defending champions — they’ve got a quality side — and put us under pressure. It was an ugly win but a win’s a win so we’re happy.
“Richard Buckman had an awesome game and our backs were inspirational.”
The Chiefs achieved parity through the first half, matching Osborne’s opening try with one to winger Dwayne Sweeney and taking a three-point lead to halftime thanks to a long-range penalty to fullback Gareth Anscombe.
Ben Smith’s try took away their advantage and Sopoaga kicked Otago to a decisive lead. But the Chiefs twice came back, with tries to Tim Nanai-Williams and Josh Hohneck, to put them in with a chance of saving the match.
“We thought we’d put ourselves in a fairly good position at halftime and started the second half well,” Chiefs captain Aaron Cruden said. “We were putting phases together and putting them under pressure, then just one lapse and a team like the Highlanders will punish you on counterattack ball.”
Highlanders 29 (Patrick Osborne, Ben Smith tries; Lima Sopoaga 2 conversions, 4 penalties, Hayden Parker penalty), Chiefs 25 (Dwayne Sweeney, Tim Nanai-Williams, Josh Hohneck tries; Aaron Cruden 2 conversions, penalty, Gareth Anscombe penalty). HT: 10-13.