The Chiefs' reign as champions is virtually over but the Highlanders have shown there remains at least one Kiwi challenger for the Super Rugby title.
The Highlanders deposed the defending champs in impressive fashion at Forsyth Barr Stadium tonight, beating Chiefs at their own game of running rugby and staunch defence.
Separated by three points entering the encounter, the two teams are now trending in opposite directions, with the Highlanders overtaking the Crusaders to top the New Zealand conference. The Chiefs, on the other hand, remain languishing in eighth overall after a third straight defeat that means they now have as many losses (six) as wins this season.
Hoping for a resurrection in fortunes after spending the June window concocting a fresh approach, many of the problems that previously plagued the Chiefs again proved their undoing in Dunedin. Chances were readily spurned, mistakes were too frequently made and any build up of pressure was released with regularity.
Perhaps understandably after a three-week break from the game, neither side found fluency for much of the match. Aside from an attacking outburst shortly after halftime from the Highlanders, errors were more prevalent than flowing passing moves and the set piece was a bit of a shambles for both teams.
The home side would have been the happier of a frustrated pair at the halftime break, behind by only three despite being dominated in terms of possession.
The Chiefs had plenty of ball and spent much more time in the opposition 22 but struggled to make the most of their advantage. And that fact would have been especially galling for the defending champions considering Dave Rennie indicated during the week his side needed to be more clinical in attack.
That tag instead belonged to the Highlanders who, with their first real period of possession, opened the scoring through Patrick Osborne. Malakai Fekitoa made the original bust through the visitors' midfield before All Blacks teammate Ben Smith spread the ball for the wing to cross in the corner.
Fekitoa was making life tough for Robbie Fruean in his first start back since being sidelined with heart troubles, with the centre enduring an uneven opening half. Augstine Pulu, having been preferred to Tawera Kerr-Barlow, was another to initially struggle, committing a couple errors to bring to a halt promising opportunities.
Thankfully for the Chiefs, Aaron Cruden continued where he left off while away on All Blacks duty, helping his side to a slim halftime lead with a clever kick to the corner that set up Dwayne Sweeney's try.
That lead didn't last for long, though, with the pattern of the first 40 minutes being exemplified immediately after the break. The Chiefs set up camp deep in Highlanders territory but, after turning over the ball, Fekitoa, Richard Buckman and Ben Smith combined for the fullback to finish a rapid bust down the right sideline.
It was a try that sparked the Highlanders' best stretch of attacking play in the half, unfortunate to return only two penalties after consistently threatening the Chiefs' line.
Instead it was Tim Nanai-Williams who next found the line, rewarding Rennie for injecting the utility in place of Fruean to help the Chiefs pulled within eight. Josh Hohneck then gave the Chiefs late hope but the Highlanders hung on for a statement win.
Highlanders 29 (Osborne, Smith tries; Sopoaga 2 cons, 4 pens, Parker pen)
Chiefs 25 (Sweeney, Nanai-Williams, Hohneck tries; Cruden pen, con, Anscombe pen)