The Highlanders put on a thrilling display of running rugby to defeat the Chiefs 25-15 at Forsyth Barr Stadium on Saturday.
The defending champions ran in three tries to two in what was a brilliant display of class and high tempo rugby fitting of a final.
The win sees the men from Dunedin move to fifth on the overall table – provisionally – while the Chiefs defeat means they gave up their chance to top the New Zealand Conference. With the Hurricanes topping the conference, both teams now have away quarter-finals, which will be decided over the course of the weekend.
In a game were there was little to chose from between the two teams, the deciding factor was a yellow card for the Chiefs in the second half, during which the home side were able to take the game away from them.
The Highlanders were welcomed to a reception worthy of defending champions in Dunedin, where conditions were perfect for running rugby.
There was plenty of passion throughout the opening stanza, with scuffles breaking out all over the park, much to the amusement of a boisterous crowd
The home side started on the front foot thanks to a knock-on by the Chiefs off the kick-off, but were a little too eager to spread the ball wide and their chance was snuffed out by an intercept.
Their positivity was nearly rewarded with an early penalty, but fly-half Lima Sopoaga would push his attempt wide of poles.
The Chiefs would score with their first crack at the line which was inspired by an accurate chip from pivot Aaron Cruden. Winger James Lowe would gather in front of the poles and 20 metres out. A few phases later, Toni Pulu would smash his way over from one metre out. McKenzie – with that smile on his face – would convert to make it 0-7 after eight minutes.
After a prolonged period on attack and a couple more runs from Lowe, the Chiefs earned an off-side penalty, but McKenzie made an absolute hash of a relatively easy shot.
Waisake Naholo provided excellent momentum for the Highlanders, bursting through the midfield after breaking two tackles. The home side enjoyed lightning fast ball after that and found their way over the tryline, only for the ball to be held up.
After a prolonged period in the Chiefs 22, the Highlanders would cross the line again via Naholo, but a replay revealed an obvious obstruction by Malakai Fekitoa on Cruden which created a hole for the winger.
There was some tremendous defence from the Chiefs for 10 minutes as they thwarted wave after wave of attack, with Ben Smith and Fekitoa coming within inches of scoring.
But Naholo would be the man to provide the magic for the Highlanders once again in the 30th minute. The Fijian-born winger dotted down in the corner with an acrobatic effort that saw his entire body over the touchline but in the air, except for the ball in his hand. Sopoaga missed the tough conversion, leaving the score 5-7, where it remained for the rest of the half.
The Chiefs would have multiple chances to strike back in the closing stages of the first half, the best of which was a massive overlap that they failed to exploit.
An early mistake at the start of the second half gave the Chiefs the opportunity to extend their lead, which McKenzie duly did to make it 5-10. Minutes later, Sopoaga canceled that out with a successful long range effort.
The Chiefs squandered another chance to score when Cruden attempted a high bomb in the corner. However, Ben Smith was simply too good, jumping over Lowe for an excellent take. The Chiefs would then turn it over after a line-out and the Highlanders nearly went the full length of the field to score, but McKenzie was there to field the chip under pressure.
In the 53rd minute, Chiefs flanker Tom Sanders was shown a yellow card after a dangerous clean out on Ben Smith, who had no right to be on that side of the ruck, nonetheless, the play was still illegal.
The Highlanders wasted no time in taking advantage, scoring ten points while Sanders was serving his time. First, Sopoaga popped over a close range penalty to take the lead for first time in the match.
Then, an errant kick was caught by Ben Smith who sparked something from nothing as his snakey run lead to some quick ball. Dan Pryor got the original break down the left-hand touchline then there was some great interplay between him and Ben Smith before the replacement crossed the whitewash. Sopoaga converted to make it 18-10.
Bu the Chiefs were not to be outdone. As they returned to their full compliment, captain Sam Cane made an inspiring run to just a metre out after a huge fend. With numbers to right, they took it through the hands with Lachlan Boshier crashing over in the corner. After a missed conversion, that made it 18-15 with 15 minutes to go at Forsyth Barr.
The Highlanders then took the game away from the Chiefs with a controversial late try via Sopoaga. Faddes looked to have knocked it on at the tryline, but replays revealed that the ball was knocked out of his hand by the tackler, after which Sopoaga scooped up the ball and fell over the line with seven minutes to go.
Despite the Chiefs doing their utmost to secure a bonus point loss, the Highlanders held out for a much deserved win.
Tries: Naholo, Prior, Sopoaga
Cons: Sopoaga 2
Pens: Sopoaga 2
Tries: Pulu, Boshier
Yellow cards: Sanders
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Matt Faddes, 12 Malakai Fekitoa, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 James Lentjes, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Alex Ainley, 4 Tom Franklin, 3 Siosuia Halanukonuka, 2 Ash Dixon, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown
Replacements: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Aki Seiuli, 18 Josh Hohneck, 19 Mark Reddish, 20 Liam Squire, 21 Dan Pryor, 22 Te Aihe Toma, 23 Fletcher Smith
Chiefs: 15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Toni Pulu, 13 Seta Tamanivalu, 12 Anton Lienert-Brown, 11 James Lowe, 10 Aaron Cruden (cc), 9 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 8 Liam Messam, 7 Sam Cane (cc), 6 Tom Sanders, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Dominic Bird, 3 Atu Moli, 2 Nathan Harris, 1 Kane Hames
Replacements: 16 Hika Elliot, 17 Siegfried Fisi'ihoi, 18 Hiroshi Yamashita, 19 Taleni Seu, 20 Lachlan Boshier, 21 Brad Weber, 22 Stephen Donald, 23 Sam McNicol
Referee: Glen Jackson (New Zealand)
Assistant Referees: Nick Briant (New Zealand), Jamie Nutbrown (New Zealand)
TMO: Chris Wratt (New Zealand)