There is a strange phenomenon in rugby which doesn't have a name but which all rugby players have experienced – the inexplicable loss after having the winning of a match.
It's like a virus; it spreads through a team quickly, invisibly. Suddenly a team bristling with authority and skill suffer some kind of collective spasm – infected by a bug which turns decision-making and skill sets into panic and stumbles. The Chiefs have it big time.
You fear for them this year. Their losing streak has swelled to 10 games and they get to play the champion Crusaders in Christchurch next, so most people will automatically mark that down as 11 losses. Then they must beat the Hurricanes in Wellington to avoid the worst losing run in New Zealand Super Rugby history (ironically, currently belonging to the Highlanders at 11).
But it was the manner of their capitulation to the Highlanders and the déjà vu from the previous year that really raises concerns.
It's not as if this is new. Last year, in the corresponding match in Hamilton, the Chiefs led 24-0 before losing 33-31. One of the tries in that last-ditch win came from winger Jona Nareki – Friday night's outstanding player.
Up 20-6 at one stage, the Chiefs' defence fell apart in 10 minutes of missed tackles and panicky errors, haemorrhaging 21 unanswered points. Even allowing for ring-rust in their first game of the season, that does not augur well for the rest of it, particularly after their run of losses with a mix of bad luck and poor play last year.
Some All Blacks were attached to those missed tackles, most of them on Nareki: Sam Cane, Brad Weber, Tupou Vaa'i and Anton Lienert-Brown.
Nareki's been rightly hailed as the hero of Friday night's encounter with three tries, including a 90m runaway after a poor kick from Chiefs first-five Bryn Gatland – but the real turning point of the game came in a ruck in the 45th minute when the busy Nareki won a ruck penalty that allowed the Highlanders to exert consistent pressure.
After several goalline sieges, halfback Folau Fakatava scored after deceiving and bumping off All Black halfback Weber and new blindside flanker Samipeni Finau. That was closely followed by Nareki embarrassing Vaa'i, Cane and Weber to set up a try to Shannon Frizell.
A few minutes later Lienert-Brown missed a tackle on Nareki for his second try. With the match lost, replacement Shaun Stevenson shot in off his wing but failed to smother-tackle the ball-carrier; Nareki had his third.
It's down to the players, sure, but it's enough to make any defence coach go and hide and in the loo after the game. With all due deference to Nareki, he is a much stronger runner than his 1.75m and 83kg suggests but this was a match the Chiefs lost as much as the Highlanders won.
There were some moments of promise; Damian McKenzie looked close to his best and was the Chiefs player with the most urgency at the end. No 8 Luke Jacobson had a strong first half, Weber showed up on attack – and young wing Etene Nanai-Seturo had such clever dancing feet, you could litter the field with broken glass and land mines and he'd still find a way through.
But it's hard to see how the Chiefs can fix this. They can't even blame the ref. They forced the Highlanders into professional fouls in the first half, earning the opposition two yellow cards; the Highlanders copped 13 penalties to the Chiefs' 10. Highlanders coach Tony Brown stayed quiet about teams dominating the penalty counts but winning the game this week.
The Chiefs were a touch unlucky when trying to come back when quick-thinking halfback Aaron Smith called a captain's challenge after the Chiefs scored. The TMO played video of Chiefs forward Mitchell Brown fending off Josh Ioane using an elbow to the throat.
It looked innocuous enough and Brown was already in a tackle and falling but, in rugby's penalty-laden laws designed for player safety, it was enough to have the try ruled out – extinguishing the Chiefs' hopes and ensuring their rugby virus remains.
Maybe they'll invent a vaccine for that too.