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Highlanders stage incredible comeback against Chiefs



Chiefs waste 24-point lead and slide to fifth loss


The Highlanders staged an incredible comeback to snatch victory from the winless Chiefs’ grasp. The visitors overturned the 24-point deficit with a try right at the death to leave Warren Gatland’s Chiefs rock-bottom of the Super Rugby Aotearoa table. For the second time against the Highlanders, the Chiefs have lost it at the death.

First half

After a stuttering start to the game with technical difficulties and injuries, the Chiefs started to dominate possession. They soon scored only their second first half try of the competition through Lachlan Boshier. He hit a good line off a Sam Cane tip on and ran in under the posts. Damian McKenzie converted, and the Chiefs led within five minutes.

With Rob Thompson in the sin-bin for a high tackle, McKenzie turned maestro. His inside pass set up Anton Leinert-Brown to bundle over from close range. The Chiefs’ fullback then added the extras and a penalty. After just a quarter of an hour, the home side were 17 points ahead.

Damian McKenzie is the most accurate kicker in Super Rugby Aotearoa. He is kicking at over 80% accuracy.

Their onslaught was not finished, however. Bradley Slater scored off a good driving maul and again McKenzie converted to build a seemingly unassailable lead.

All of a sudden, the Highlanders woke up and started to threaten. They made their way over the line through Marino Mikaele Tu’u and Sam Cane was yellow carded for interfering. Even with the conversion the Highlanders were still 17 points down at half time.

Second half

The Chiefs continued their impressive performance straight after the restart as Slater scored his second off another maul. The ever-accurate McKenzie converted, and they had re-established their 24-point lead.

Some fantastic handling from the Highlanders’ backs soon brought them back into the game. Mitchell Hunt received a short pass from Michael Collins, and he had enough gas to make it over the line. He could not convert his try, though, meaning his team were 31-12 down.

With just 25 minutes to play, the Highlanders scored what is surely the team try of the weekend. Josh McKay made a good half break and offloaded to Aaron Smith. Smith, making a fingertip catch, raced away but could not escape his opposite number, Brad Weber. He passed away to Manaaki Selby-Rickit who took contact and offloaded to the onrushing Smith. The All Blacks scrum half managed to bundle his way over and put his team back into contention at 31-19.

Aaron Smith made his All Blacks debut in 2012 and has gone on to score 97 points in 92 games.

Disaster then struck for the Highlanders. Damian McKenzie made use of his dazzling footwork to make his way through heavy traffic and score under the posts. In a dramatic turn of events, the try was chalked off for an accidental offside in the build-up.

Still in touch, the Highlanders threw everything they had at the Chiefs but somehow their defence held firm. It was only the introduction of Jona Nareki that pushed the ignition.

Nareki used his footwork to get around the drifting defence on halfway as he so often does. The 22-year-old winger then used his pace and power to hand off the cover defence and go over in the corner.

With Hunt’s conversion they were within five points with just five minutes remaining. Every time they got close, they were repelled by the brilliant Lachlan Boshier and his magical turnovers.

However, he could not do it all. Eventually, the Highlanders set up a maul five metres from the line. After sucking in defenders, Aaron Smith went sniping and found the powerful run of Patelesio Tomkinson. Tomkinson ran in untouched under the posts and Hunt ended the Chiefs hopes of their first win by converting with the clock deep into the red. Hunt’s conversion was the final nail in the coffin as the Highlanders completed their incredible comeback.

What next?

The Chiefs find themselves in real trouble at the bottom of the table. They are six points adrift of the Highlanders in fourth and really need to pick up a win to salvage their reputation. It will not be easy, as next week they face a trip to Eden Park to face the hurting Blues. The Blues have not lost at home throughout the tournament so this will be extra difficult.

The Highlanders, on the other hand, are in a strong position, just two points behind the Hurricanes. Next week they have their bye week and are sure to need some rest after this helter-skelter match.


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Eddie is currently studying for his BA in French at Bristol University. He has played rugby since a young age, playing a variety of positions in the back line. His passionate interest in sport, especially rugby, has encouraged him to transfer it to journalism, working with his university paper, Epigram, in addition to his role with Sporting Ferret.


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