Chiefs 17
Highlanders 20

Sunday's flight to South Africa suddenly looms as an especially long ordeal for the Chiefs.

The unbeaten start to the Super Rugby season is over and few will argue the Chiefs deserved any less in a last-minute loss to the Highlanders last night.

Marty Banks was the hero - kicking two penalties in the final five minutes to overturn a deficit and snatch a 20-17 victory - but there were plenty of villains to choose from.

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Having thumped the Crusaders in their last outing, the Chiefs followed their best performance of the season with their worst at Waikato Stadium, let down by both their hands and their heads.

Only brute strength from a dominant forward pack saw the Chiefs in a position to win but, having gone in front courtesy of a pair of penalty tries, an atypical lack of composure saw the Highlanders seize just their second win in Hamilton in the last 10 years.

While the southern men certainly deserve credit for a tenacious defence that disrupted the Chiefs' plans and a fighting spirit that refused to wane even when the tide had turned, the Chiefs were the masters of their own downfall.

Possessing one of the most potent back lines in the competition, it must have been galling for Dave Rennie to watch his side fire blanks whenever they fired the ball too far from the vicinity of a ruck.

The Hamilton crowd, so accustomed to finding their feet whenever a star-studded backline found the ball, instead watched on with frustration as chance after chance went begging, particularly in an impotent opening half.

It wasn't that they were lacking in variation, with offloads and quick exchanges of hands seeing the Chiefs threaten from all over the field. But almost every one of those threats were snuffed out by a spilled pass, a poor decision or a breakdown in timing.

The match provided a lesson that possession and territory can count for nought under the right confluence of conditions - namely, a defence that bends without breaking and an attack that was strangely feeble in key moments.

The Chiefs enjoyed 80 per cent territory for much of the match but, every time they put themselves in a position to strike, they were subsequently lacking.

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The home side went to the sheds trailing by 11, when another night would have seen them lead by many more. All their control produced a solitary Aaron Cruden penalty - one success to go with three failures on a poor night with the boot.

Nine handling errors in the half rendered irrelevant the 10 minutes the Chiefs spent inside the opposition 22, while the Highlanders, through Patrick Osborne, proved more potent in 30 seconds than the hosts had all half.

With their expansive attack stuttering, the Chiefs wisely opted instead to keep things tight in the second spell, working from the sturdy base of a rock solid set piece to repeatedly find field position with an unstoppable driving maul.

The Highlanders' defence was tiring and forced to infringe to halt the charge, bringing a yellow card to Joe Wheeler and, eventually, the penalty tries. But seemingly there for the killing, the Chiefs let their opponents off the hook and were left to watch in horror as Banks won the game.

Chiefs 17 (Penalty try 2; Cruden pen, 2 cons)
Highlanders 20 (Osborne try; Sopoaga 3 pens, Banks 2 pens)
HT: 3-14