HAMILTON, New Zealand (AP) — Center Sio Tompkinson scored the match-winning try in the 82nd minute as the Highlanders rallied from 24-0 down after 21 minutes to beat the Chiefs 33-31 Sunday in Super Rugby Aotearoa.
Flyhalf Mitch Hunt’s conversion, the final act of the match, marked the first time the Dunedin-based Highlanders had led.
They were down 24-7 at halftime and 31-7 early in the second half but rallied doggedly to score four second-half tries, including two in the last five minutes, to grab an unlikely victory.
“Once we had the ball and put some phases together we were good,” Highlanders captain Ash Dixon said. “But I think in that first half we were well off the pace and we couldn’t contain it."
“We gave away a lot of silly penalties and our discipline was poor. But once we got down the right end of the field and played a bit of ball things happened."
After a thrilling 80 minutes the match came down to the final play. The Highlanders, trailing 31-26, won a penalty after the full-time siren and kicked to touch to win a a lineout five meters from the Chiefs’ goal line.
They won the ball and Dixon secured it at the back of the maul as they attempted to drive through the Chiefs defense. They were held back by the Chiefs’ determined defense and scrumhalf Aaron Smith called for the ball, passing on the open side to Tompkinson who cut through to score.
In doing so, the Highlanders prevented the Chiefs from winning their first match of the Super Rugby Aotearoa season. They lost their first four matches in the New Zealand competition and their last in the full Super Rugby tournament before it was suspended because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Chiefs and British and Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland was made aware before the match that the Chiefs only twice before in their history have lost six games in a row and have never lost five in a row at home.
Gatland responded: “I’ve been in rugby a long time so it’s not the first time I’ve had my back against the wall a little bit.”
The Hamilton-based Chiefs came out in a similarly combative mood, controlling possession and territory to score three tries in the first quarter. The remainder of the match was more competitive and the Highlanders scored a try to cut the lead to 24-7 at halftime.
The Chiefs opened the second half with a try — their second to hooker Bradley Slater from a lineout drive — before the Highlanders rallied with two tries, including the best of the match to scrumhalf Aaron Smith.
Winger Josh McKay made a small break and Smith was on hand to scoop up his desperate pass and break into open space with his All Blacks teammate, Chiefs scrumhalf Brad Weber in hot pursuit. Caught short of the goal line, Smith passed to replacement lock Manaaki Selby-Rickit who returned his pass and made the try.
A try to winger Jona Nareki, who cut through the Chiefs’ defense from halfway in the 75th minute, put the Highlanders within a converted try of victory and set up the decisive final moment.
More AP sports: https://apnews.com/apf-sports and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports