The Chiefs' superb Super 15 season remained on a fast boil with a victory in Dunedin last night that has all but ended the Highlanders title hopes.
A 75th minute Hosea Gear try gave the eighth-placed Highlanders a glimmer of hope that was snuffed out by their own attacking lethargy and the Chiefs' stout defence.
The Chiefs, who led 18-9 at halftime, had to cling on for the 27-21 win after the Highlanders won a scrum reversal and took the game nearly four minutes past the fulltime hooter. But as throughout the whole game at the Forsyth Barr Stadium, their attack was laboured and the Chiefs always looked likely to get the turnover they needed.
The Chiefs will go into their penultimate game against the Crusaders in Hamilton on top of the table, guaranteed a playoff spot, but desperate to keep winning and gain finals home advantage.
Patches of first half frivolity were replaced by more aggravation in a more stoic second half, a Sonny Bill Williams shoulder charge sparking a mid-level brawl, with Highlanders forwards Jarrad Hoeata and Nick Crosswell other strong contributors.
It worked to the Highlanders advantage, their penalty and ensuing lineout leading to a messy Chiefs challenge from which Andrew Hore - who came on for Jason Rutledge at the beginning of the second half - scored in the middle of a ruck. But the attempted Highlanders revival never got out of second gear even though referee Garratt Williamson assisted their cause with dubious scrum penalties against the Chiefs when they were hard on attack.
The Chiefs showed the hard-nosed side to their personality, putting away the tricks, tying the HIghlanders up, and running the clock down as Aaron Cruden penalties put them beyond reach.
The Highlanders owned the ball but not the scoreboard in the first half, as the Chiefs made the utmost of their rare opportunities.
The visitors opened the scoring after a couple of minutes after Tawera Kerr-Barlow robbed a ponderous Aaron Smith of the ball, Liam Messam and Williams carried the ball upfield, and Tim Nanai-Williams skidded over.
The Highlanders would have been in even more trouble but for a terrific Gear intervention, the rejuvenated All Black wing manhandling Asaeli Tikoirotuma off the tryline.
The Highlanders kept nagging away but apart from a couple of promising runs from Gear, they lacked the cutting edge of the Chiefs.
When Gear ill-advisedly tried to run free of his 22m line, the Chiefs struck again with the giant prop Ben Tameifuna playing a significant part, charging down a Chris Noakes clearance and gathering the ball. Robbie Robinson finished off the try with Williams and Brodie Retallick involved.
Only a blatant Adam Thomson professional foul - one that should have drawn a yellow card - prevented the likelihood of another Chiefs try from scant opportunity.
With the halftime hooter having sounded, the Chiefs were hot on attack but Thomson leaned into their side of the ruck, and the Highlanders were relieved to only concede a Cruden penalty. All the Highlanders could muster in the first half were three Noakes penalties.
In the All Black related match-ups, new test halfback Smith was outshone by one of his understudies Kerr-Barlow.
Robinson proved to be the one who got away from both the Highlanders franchise and their defenders last night. Robinson ran very strongly on numerous occasions and left fringe test utility Ben Smith - the Highlanders No 15 who had a game of low involvement - in the shade.