A dejected Chiefs captain Sam Cane said it was like “trying to hold back a wave” as the Highlanders, down 31-7 early in the second half, stormed home with four unanswered tries.
It was the second win for the Highlanders in New Zealand’s post-coronavirus Super Rugby Aotearoa competition.
And both have come against the winless Chiefs, whose coach Warren Gatland has now presided over five straight defeats.
Gatland, the celebrated British and Irish Lions coach who returned to New Zealand after steering Wales to the World Cup semi-finals last year, had also seen his Chiefs team lose to the Highlanders in the dying seconds in their opening Super Rugby Aotearoa match last month.
On that occasion in Dunedin, Gatland watched as his son Bryn slotted the match-winning drop goal for the Highlanders just before the final whistle.
A similar outcome in the return fixture Sunday did not look likely as the Chiefs raced into a 24-0 lead after 20 minutes with three converted tries and a penalty, aided by a string of mistakes from the visitors.
The Chiefs had a 24-7 cushion at half-time and extended the lead to 31-7 with another try soon after the restart before the Highlanders clicked and clawed their way back.
Highlanders captain Ash Dixon said there were stern words at half-time to cut out their unforced errors.
– ‘Hurts to lose like that’ –
“In that first half we were well off the pace and the Chiefs came out really well and we couldn’t contain them and gave away a lot of silly penalties,” he said.
“But once we got to the right end of the field and played a bit of ball things happened.”
Cane said the Chiefs had enough opportunities to win but let themselves down.
“It certainly hurts to lose one at the death like that. We had the win in our grasp and we’re pretty disappointed,” he said.
The opening burst from the Chiefs produced tries to Lachlan Boshier and Anton Lienert-Brown, capitalising on an ineffectual defence, while hooker Bradley Slater found the line from a lineout drive.
Damian McKenzie landed all three conversions and a penalty to give the Chiefs a solid buffer before the Highlanders moved the scoreboard with a try to Marino Mikaele-Tu’u.
Slater scored his second try, again from a lineout drive, two minutes into the second half to have the Chiefs ahead 31-7.
But they could not hold back the determined Highlanders who were fired up by All Blacks scrum-half Aaron Smith who featured in all four of their second-half tries, scoring one himself.
Mitch Hunt, Jona Nareki also touched down before Tomkinson’s dart to the line for a try from Smith’s precision pass on the last play of the match levelled the scores 31-31.
Hunt kept his cool to convert from almost in front of the posts and complete the comeback with the Highlanders scoring 26 unanswered second-half points.