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Chiefs survive Highlanders' comeback to register fourth win of season

By Finn Morton
Rameka Poihipi of the Chiefs dives over for a try during the round five Super Rugby Pacific match between Chiefs and Highlanders at FMG Stadium Waikato, on March 23, 2024, in Hamilton, New Zealand. (Photo by Michael Bradley/Getty Images)

Halfback Cortez Ratima was among the standouts on Saturday as the Chiefs survived a late comeback to defeat one of their New Zealand rivals the Highlanders 28-21 in Hamilton.

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The Chiefs’ victory started with a flurry of tries during the first half but the Highlanders refused to throw in the towel as they pushed their New Zealand rivals for the entire 80-minute battle.

Playing away from home, the Highlanders’ poor discipline cost them during various stages of the match, including a red card to outside centre Tanielu Tele’a just before the half-time break.

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Hamilton rugby fans had plenty to smile about during the second 40 as the Chiefs hung on for a big win to improve their season record to 4-1 after five rounds.

But as lock Josh Lord said on the sidelines during the match, while the attacking threat of the Chiefs deserves plenty of plaudits, so do their defensive efforts which were superb.

“Defence is huge,” All Blacks and Chiefs lock Josh Lord said on the Sky Sport broadcast during the second half.

“Can’t win a game without defence and the boys are putting on a bit of a show out there today. So, yeah, doing well.”

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The Highlanders’ start to the derby, unfortunately for them, set the tone for what was to come. Former Wales international Rhys Patchell, who returned to the matchday squad this week, sent the opening kick-off into touch on the full.

Patchell was visibly disappointed with the effort as both forward packs made their way towards the centre of the field for the first scrum of the night. The Chiefs held strong early as they were initially awarded a free kick and then a penalty soon after.

Match Summary

0
Penalty Goals
0
4
Tries
3
4
Conversions
3
0
Drop Goals
0
65
Carries
192
9
Line Breaks
7
15
Turnovers Lost
23
9
Turnovers Won
6

Things could’ve gone from bad to worse for the Highlanders inside two minutes as fly-half Damian McKenzie lined up a long-range penalty from the halfway line. But the visitors were granted a lifeline as the All Black failed to make the distance.

While Highlanders fans let out a collective sigh of relief with the scores still held to nil-all, the Chiefs played with plenty of momentum and confidence, and that paid off for them only a few minutes later.

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Fullback Shaun Stevenson caught defenders in two minds with a clever show-and-go before then getting his hands free and offloading the ball to right winger Daniel Rona.

Rona still had plenty of work to do but with an open channel in front of him, the utility pinned the ears and ended up scoring in the corner with a superb finish. McKenzie stepped up and nailed the conversion from the touchline to give the hosts a seven-point lead.

With the Hamilton crowd in their corner, the Chiefs looked to add more points to their lead as they piled on plenty of attacking pressure, while the Highlanders desperately did whatever they could to hang on.

The Highlanders were defending their own try line when wing Timoci Tavatavanawai was yellow-carded in the 13th minute. McKenzie dinked the ball into the corner to give the hosts an attacking lineout five metres out from the try line.

Hooker Bradley Slater reaped the rewards of the Chiefs’ rolling maul. Not only had they made it a two-score game but the Chiefs were playing at a point-a-minute.

The game could’ve quite easily gotten away from the Highlanders, but to their credit, the men from Dunedin stuck in as they looked to claw their way back from an already-concerning deficit.

After making their way up the field, and then being awarded a penalty, inside centre Sam Gilbert looked to knock over the Highlanders’ first points of the evening with a penalty.

But the attempt struck the upright.

The Highlanders continued to threaten, including a golden opportunity for captain Billy Harmon to score out wide. But the All Blacks XV flanker was bundled into touch by Damian McKenzie who rushed over as a covering defender.

It just wasn’t going right for the Highlanders.

Highlanders centre Tanielu Tele’a was shown a yellow card under review for a high shot in the 39th minute, and that was later deemed to be a red card-worthy incident by the TMO.

With Tele’a off the field, the Chiefs made the most of their numerical advantage with Rameka Poihipi running through what would’ve been Tele’a channel to score with the final play before the break.

The Chiefs led 21-nil at the break. They were utterly dominant and in control, but there was still another 40 to play at the Hamilton venue.

Tele’s red card was the big story to start the second term with referee Paul Williams confirming the incident had been upgraded a few minutes into the half. The Highlanders would have to play about another 16 minutes or so with at least 14 men.

The same narrative from the first half continued into the second as the Chiefs continued to run riot with some attacking flair from their forwards and backs alike.

While Kaylum Boshier had a long-range try ruled out by the TMO, the Chiefs still scored next with McKenzie linking up with Cortez Ratima for a highlight reel-worthy effort.

Ratima, who had come close to scoring twice during the first half, ran through a tackle attempt from his opposite Folau Fakatava to score the Chiefs’ fourth.

It took an hour but the Highlanders were finally on the scoreboard with Tavatavanawai fighting his way to the try line before slamming the ball down for a much-needed score.

While 21 points still separated the two teams, the Highlanders began to play with a renewed sense of belief after they returned to a full contingent of 15 men.

The Highlanders’ commendable resilience continued to show inside the final 10 minutes of play with fullback Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens adding another five-pointer to their score. Sam Gilbert converted the try to make the difference by just 14 points.

They weren’t done yet, either.

Nikora Broughton set up a titanic finale with a try in the 79th minute. With a once-unlikely comeback still on the cards, the Highlanders made their way into the Chiefs’ 22 with time up on the clock.

Phase after phase, the tension grew. Eight phases, nine phases, but the Chiefs stood tall in defence before a knock-on from Sam Gilbert brought an end to the epic clash.

The Chiefs held on for a hard-fought win at FMG Stadium Waikato to improve their season record to 4-1.

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