Super Rugby Pacific: Chiefs hold off late charge to inflict further misery on Highlanders

The highflying Chiefs have barely held off a late charge from the hapless Highlanders, emerging with a 28-21 Super Rugby Pacific victory at Hamilton's FMG Stadium.

For most of the contest, the southerners, hoping to halt a 17-game losing run in Kiwi derbies dating back three years, seemed headed for another ignominious defeat, but ran in three late converted tries to make the scoreline close.

At the end, they had two minutes to force goldenpoint and were camped in the Chiefs 22 after the siren, before finally throwing a stay pass to continue the drought.

Cortez Ratima celebrates his try against the Highlanders.
Cortez Ratima celebrates his try against the Highlanders. Photo credit: Photosport

Meanwhile, the home side notched up their fourth win of their campaign, edging ahead of ACT Brumbies on points difference, for second behind the Hurricanes. Queensland Reds and the Blues may yet leapfrog them, when they meet winless Western Force and Crusaders later Saturday.  

The Highlanders were off to an ominous start, when first-five Rhys Patchell putting the opening kickoff into touch on the full. A scrum on halfway turned into a penalty, but counterpart Damian McKenzie was well short with his attempt at goal.

Patchell repeated his error, with his dropout also finding touch, and from a scrum on the 22, Chiefs fullback Shaun Stevenson menaced the Highlanders defence to put winger Daniel Rona over in the corner.

All Blacks lock Josh Lord ushered his return to the Chiefs starting XV by charging through a gap up centrefield and putting a delightful kick ahead for halfback Cortez Ratima to chase in goal. 

Highlanders fullback Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens won the race to force, but from the next passage of play, Highlanders winger Timoci Tavatavanawai was yellow-carded near his goal-line.

The Chiefs opted for an attacking lineout, with Bradley Slater scoring at the back of the maul.

After weathering the initial storm, the visitors finally worked themselves into field position, but second-five Sam Gilbert hit the post with a penalty attempt.

From a subsequent penalty and lineout, the Highlanders put together several phases, before captain Billy Harmon was shunted out in the corner. A third penalty became a tap, but halfback Folau Fakatava knocked on in the shadow of the posts. 

The Chiefs almost had a third try, when flanker Kaylum Boshier hared up the left sideline and put in a leftfoot kick to the corner, but Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens again beat Ratima to the ball.

Outstanding centre Taniela Tele'a was shown a yellow card for direct contact to the head in a cleanout and his absence was immediately felt, when counterpart Rameka Poihipi scored under the crossbar.

Trailling 21-0 at halftime, the Highlanders received another blow soon after the restart, when Tele'a's yellow turned red, leaving his team shorthanded for another 10 minutes and likely earning himself a suspension.

Even with 14 men, the visitors continued to create - and squander - opportunities. 

Fakatava created a turnover inside his own 22, but his misdirected kick to Stevenson triggered a counterattack that saw Boshier gallop to the tryline. Replays showed a forward pass in the build-up, the Highlanders were let off the hook.

Josh Lord makes a break against the Highlanders.
Josh Lord makes a break against the Highlanders. Photo credit: Photosport

Moments later, McKenzie gathered a clearing kick on halfway and sprinted to the 22, where he found Ratima to finally score, after two narrow misses.

Winger Jona Nareki went close for the Highlanders, when he chipped to the corner, but was again covered by the Chiefs defence. They returned to full quote with 20 minutes remaining and from a tap penalty, Tavatavanawai finally put the southerners on the board.

The Chiefs temporarily lost captain Luke Jacobson for a high tackle, after earlier avoiding a card for head-to-head contact in a previous incident. 

Now with a numerical advantage, the Highlanders began to wear down their rivals and Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens deservedly scored their second try.

They closed to within a converted try in the dying moments, when Nareki broke from an attacking lineout and his offload was eventually forced by No.8 Nikora Broughton, confirmed by video replay.

The Highlanders had two minutes to force goldenpoint and won a penalty near halfway on the final siren. They entered the 22 from an attacking lineout and strung together 12 phases, before Connor Garden-Bachop bounced a pass off Gilbert's shoulder to end their hopes.

Chiefs 28 (Rona, Slater, Poihipi & Ratima tries; McKenzie 4 conversions) Highlanders 21 (Tavatavanawai, Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens & Broughton tries; Gilbert 3 conversions)