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Sydney – The Waikato Chiefs prevailed 27-21 in a fierce physical contest against the Otago Highlanders in Dunedin on Friday to secure a place in the Super Rugby playoffs and all but end their opponents' hopes of post-season play.
The competition leaders were clinical with turnover ball and ran in first half tries through winger Tim Nanai-Williams and fullback Robbie Robinson before holding off a desperate late charge from the home side.
The Highlanders were led manfully by All Blacks flanker Adam Thomson but paid the price for inaccuracy at key moments of the match and ultimately had to be satisfied with tries from replacement hooker Andrew Hore and a late effort from winger Hosea Gear.
The Highlanders were the only New Zealand team to have beaten the Chiefs this season but the visitors quickly made it clear they would not be blown away at the breakdown as they were back in the first week of the competition.
They first struck after three minutes after stealing the ball at a ruck deep inside their own half and quickly moved it to rampaging centre Sonny-Bill Williams and then out to Nanai-Williams, who reached over the line to touch down in the tackle.
Flyhalf Aaron Cruden added the extras before Chris Noakes got the home side on the scorebaord with the first of his three penalties five minutes later.
Cruden kicked the first of his five penalties after 11 minutes but it was not until just before halftime that the Chiefs put some daylight between themselves and the Highlanders.
Three minutes before the break, a Noakes kick was charged down in midfield and again the Chiefs wasted no time in getting the ball out wide, where Robinson was able to cross easily.
Cruden missed the conversion but added another penalty after the hooter had sounded and when he clipped over another just a minute after the restart, the Chiefs were 21-9 up.
Sometime boxer Williams was adjudged to have barged into a Highlander runner in the 44th minute, provoking a fist-swinging brawl that went on long after play had moved to the other side of the pitch.
The Highlanders kicked the ensuing penalty to touch and the Chiefs won the line-out but spilled the ball backwards allowing Hore to pick it up and score through a scrum of bodies in the 46th minute.
Two more penalties from Cruden put the Chiefs a comfortable-looking 27-14 up in the 68th minute but the Highlanders were not yet ready to call time on their playoff hopes yet.
With five minutes to go, a neat break by replacement back Mike Delany got the Highlanders close to the Chiefs' line and Gear burrowed over for a converted try to give the home side hope that they might nick the win with another. – Reuters