HAMILTON – Damian McKenzie engineered two key tries, one on either side of halftime, to set up a 27-22 win for the Chiefs over the Highlanders in a tight Super Rugby clash in Hamilton on Friday.
The lead changed five times, with both sides scoring three tries.
For the Chiefs, back home after thrashing the Sunwolves in Tokyo, it improved their record to four wins from five matches while the Highlanders suffered their second loss after falling to the Hurricanes last weekend.
The Highlanders had two scoring opportunities in the final two minutes with lineouts close to the Chiefs’ line, but lost both of them.
“They were critical. The first one we probably should have hung on to it, and as soon as we booted it out, I thought ‘Oh!’,” said captain Sam Kane, who celebrated his 100th Super Rugby game.
“It was a pretty gutsy win. It was a real arm-wrestle, but we hung in the fight.”
McKenzie landed two penalties for the Chiefs to take an early 6-0 lead, while the Highlanders suffered the loss of influential flyhalf Lima Sopoaga to an apparent Achilles injury.
When Waisake Naholo scored for the Highlanders to hit the front 7-6, following Fletcher Smith’s conversion, McKenzie again stepped up as the central figure for the Chiefs.
Just before halftime, he put in a well-weighted cross-kick for wing Toni Pulu to tap inside for fullback Solomon Alaimalo to score.
Three minutes after the break, the diminutive pivot waltzed through a loose attempt by the Highlanders to protect their own line and put Nathan Harris in for the try.
With the Chiefs ahead 20-12 it was the turn of a recharged Highlanders to regain the lead with a penalty from Smith, who then converted a try by Paletasio Tomkinson after Ash Dixon scooped up a charged-down McKenzie clearing kick.
When a try by Sean Wainui regained the lead for the Chiefs, the Highlanders were still in the game as they attacked the Chiefs’ line.
But losing their own thrown in two critical lineouts ensured the Chiefs stayed in front.