By the time 80 minutes was up at Forsyth Barr Stadium on Saturday, both the Highlanders and Chiefs faced a historic first for Super Rugby Aotearoa.
For the first time ever in the competition’s short history, a match would go to golden point to decide a victor.
The Chiefs had shown some positive signs in the weeks leading up to this contest, with an incredible come from behind win over the Hurricanes in Wellington before fullback Damian McKenzie scored a last-minute winner in an upset over the Blues.
But golden point would be one of, if not the toughest test they’ve faced so far.
Considering Highlanders replacement Josh Ioane had scored 10 unanswered points in seven minutes to send the two teams to extra time, momentum was against them and so were the fans.
But a long-range McKenzie penalty goal left the Dunedin crowd stunned as the Chiefs extended their winning streak that started in Wellington last month.
Speaking after the match, interim head coach Clayton McMillan initially described the match as “bittersweet” before later commenting on the “encouraging” performance from this side.
“It was really nice to get that win because I think it’s a critical game in the competition,” McMillan said.
“But, from where I sat, it looked untidy, it looked like two teams that were really pretty desperate. The accuracy at times was not great, it was a bit of a stop-start game but still grateful that a young team got across the line.
“We just showed a bit of patience to get down the other end of the field and force a penalty. When you do those [things], that’s really encouraging signs because when the blow torch is on you like that you either step up or you step down.”
For the Chiefs, it was their third win a row, and they now sit third on the Super Rugby Aotearoa standings with a few weeks to go.
Considering their form both last year and throughout the first fortnight of the competition this season, it’s been quite an impressive rise.
“No one gave us too much of a chance last time we played, and it didn’t look too well after two weeks but we ground away,” McMillan said.
“We’ve done it a number of different ways, we’ve come from 25 points down and then we snuck in front and scored in the last minute and we’ve that again today. Those are encouraging signs from a young squad.
“We’ve got a young squad and you just can’t get through this competition, I don’t believe, chucking the same 15 or 17 players out there. Our squad is our squad, we believe in everybody.”
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One of the two try scorers for the Chiefs in the win over the Highlanders was prop Angus Ta’avao, who scored with just under 20 minutes to play. Ta’avao also spoke post-match after the match about the significance of the win.
“We’ve won three on the trot now, it’s a different change room than [the] 11 [losses] in a row,” he said. “The boys are up and looking forward to next week.
“You look at those 11 games and most of them were lost within five points. We’ve just worked really hard on the little moments, and winning those little moments.
“Once you have a couple of wins you start to feel pretty good about yourself, and you just keep building on what’s working.
“It was a weird first half. A lot of the boys felt like we didn’t do much because there were so many of those penalties and little things like that.
“When we take those away, and we can control what we do and look after the ball, we feel like we can beat any team. There’s a lot of belief in our camp. You look at this competition, anyone is in it.”
While momentum is such an important factor in sport, the Chiefs will face another tough matchup this week against the reigning champions, the Crusaders, in Hamilton.
But, as McMillan suggested after the match, playing at home could be a major boost for the Chiefs.
“I really hope that our passionate Chiefs supporters get behind us in Hamilton next week. If we can get close to a full stadium, then I truly believe that we have the capacity to give the current champions a bit of a shake.”
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