The Otago Highlanders knocked two-time former champions the Waikato Chiefs out of the Super 15 race with a bruising 24-14 victory in the opening play-off match played in Dunedin yesterday.
It was an intensely physical encounter with not only a place in the Super 15 semi-finals on the line, but also a last chance to impress the All Blacks selectors before a 40-man squad is named today.
Highlanders wing Waisake Naholo, widely expected to earn an All Blacks call up, did his chances no harm with two tries, both engineered by Aaron Smith going blind from the back of a scrum.
The Chiefs, who lost twice to the Highlanders in regular-season play, seized the lead briefly on the stroke of halftime when a third Andrew Horrell penalty have them a 9-8 lead at the turn.
However, Naholo’s second try soon after the resumption returned the initiative to the Highlanders and they never fell behind again as they entered the southern hemisphere championship semi-finals for the first time since 2002.
Highlanders left wing Patrick Osborne crossed the line just 90 seconds after the kick-off only for the try to be disallowed as Naholo had brushed the opposite touchline with his foot early in the move.
However, it only took another two minutes before the Highlanders got on the board, with a Lima Sopoaga penalty, which Andrew Horrell quickly matched for the Chiefs before Naholo scored the game’s opening try.
Horrell missed two shots at goal before regaining his radar and kicked two more to put the Chiefs ahead by one point.
The Highlanders’ second-half battle plan was to kick for territory and try to keep the Chiefs pinned in their own half, captain Ben Smith said.
“We managed to play at the right areas of the field,” Ben Smith said.
Naholo’s second try, his 11th for the season, and a conversion and penalty by Sopoaga put them 18-9 ahead before the Chiefs managed a try to Brodie Retallick.
With 20 minutes remaining and only four points in it, the Chiefs believed they still had a chance, but their reputation as the most penalized team in the competition came back to haunt them as Sopoaga landed another two penalties to give the Highlanders a comfortable buffer.
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