Highlanders 33
Chiefs 31

Warren Gatland and Aaron Mauger could not have cut more contrasting figures as the respective coaches pondered the Highlanders' dramatic second-half comeback victory in Hamilton that leaves the Chiefs winless in Super Rugby Aotearoa.

Four second-half tries from the Highlanders overturned a 24-7 halftime deficit and inflicted the sixth straight defeat on the Chiefs dating back pre-lockdown.

That equals the franchise's record losing run set across the 1998-1999 and 2008-2009 seasons, the latter when All Blacks coach Ian Foster was in charge. Gatland's Chiefs have now also lost a record five home games in succession.

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Blowing what seemed a certain victory, having led by 24 points on two occasions, ramps up pressure on Chiefs coach Gatland who surprisingly left Aaron Cruden on the bench for the entire match.

"With that lead we should have been comfortable closing the game out" Gatland said. "All of us need to have a good look at ourselves to make sure we learn from that.

"It's an absolute challenge. We were really happy before lockdown. We know how close this New Zealand competition is. We're not being rolled over by 30, 40 points. We're competing against all these teams and we just need a bit of luck and that will turn."

Patelesio Tomkinson scored a try on fulltime and Mitchell Hunt nailed the match-winning conversion to steal a stunning late upset that never seemed possible until the closing stages.

Mauger delivered a halftime rocket to the Highlanders after their worst 40 minutes of the season, and they then responded with loose forwards Shannon Frizell and Marino Mikaele-Tu'u leading the way in the pack while Jona Nareki and Josh Ioane added much-needed spark from the bench. Aaron Smith, as he has throughout this season, was at the heart of everything positive the Highlanders produced.

"Very rarely to be fair," Mauger said of how often he fires tirades at his team at halftime. "The first thing was around mentality - we set ourselves up for a couple of those early tries from not working hard enough and that's unacceptable. Once we addressed that it was back to strategy and how to build our game. Credit to these boys they went out and did it."

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The Chiefs were miffed about Damian McKenzie's disallowed try in the second half that appeared to involve the officials going back more than two phases to find an accidental offside, but Gatland admitted they should never blow such an advantage.

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On a balmy Sunday afternoon the 10,713 crowd once again departed despondent – their side seemingly incapable of finding a way to break their duck in the New Zealand only competition.

The final quarter capitulation leaves the Chiefs in a huge hole with a trip to Eden Park to contemplate next week.

"Yeah we got a couple of rough calls but we've got to be better than we are when we come under pressure," Gatland said. "The messages we're delivering from the box - are they getting through?

"I wouldn't say it's complacency but sometimes it's hard when it's been so easy for you and a team turns around, makes a few changes and they get a bit of momentum and we've showed a lack of confidence. The pressure came on and because we haven't been nailing those games at the end that pressure and decision making was crucial.

"We've got to be more clinical than that and unfortunately we weren't."

Three first-half tries – the only time the Chiefs have crossed in the opening half in this competition – left the Highlanders stunned.

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The Chiefs started with pace and panache to lead 24-0 in as many minutes, crossing through the ever-impressive Lachlan Boshier, Anton Lienert-Brown and Bradley Slater after some soft Highlanders defence.

The Chiefs looked set for an easy victory. Photo / Photosport
The Chiefs looked set for an easy victory. Photo / Photosport

The Highlanders were a different beast in the second spell, however, with Ioane's introduction off the bench – his first match in this competition after returning from a groin injury – having a major impact on their attacking shape and ability to use the width.

The win improves the Highlanders to 2-3 – both successes coming in the last seconds against the Chiefs after Bryn Gatland's dropped goal stole victory in Dunedin. They now welcome the bye after a string of four brutal derby matches.

"It's no good for a coach," Mauger said of the frantic finishes. "It's an awesome competition - the spectacles that are being put on by these boys are high quality. It's hard on the ticker for a coach. It would be nice to be more convincing but it's what you expect. These are the moments you live for. We're happy to nail those key moments and we'll enjoy a few beers tonight."

Highlanders 33 (Marino Mikaele-Tu'u, Mitchell Hunt, Aaron Smith, Jona Nareki, Patelesio Tomkinson tries; Hunt 4 cons)
Chiefs 31 (Bradley Slater 2, Lachlan Boshier, Anton Lienert-Brown tries; Damian McKenzie 4 cons, pen)
HT: 7-24