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There were 16 long years between home playoff games for the Highlanders - but this one was well worth the wait.
The Highlanders tonight capped an amazing season with perhaps their finest performance, knocking out the Chiefs and advancing to the Super Rugby semifinals to continue their charge for a maiden title.
Dunedin was treated to a display thunderous up front and electric out wide, with the Highlanders winning a playoff match 24-14 in front of their own fans for the first time since 1999.
"That was a huge game for us - it felt like a final to me," said Aaron Smith, the architect of everything good for his side. "I'm just really excited about what's to come -- I've never been in this situation before."
The southern side were certainly worthy in advancing to the final four, seizing their opportunities and capably handling everything thrown at them to edge the Chiefs for the third time this campaign.
It was a victory that showcased the blend of physicality and finesse at the heart of the Highlanders, featuring fewer big names than the rest of the playoff pack but lacking nothing in quality.
That quality was obvious and, even if the Chiefs were well aware of how the Highlanders intended harm them, prior knowledge did nothing to help. The visitors could only watch as the wings and the Smiths combined in clinical fashion - to the surprise of absolutely no one.
Waisake Naholo and Aaron Smith were in particularly lethal form and, with equal parts pace and precision, the pair created the Highlanders' two tries following unstoppable scrum moves.
That's not to say the Chiefs' own key men failed to fire, though. Sam Cane was typically industrious all over the field, while Brodie Retallick's influence was such to suggest the Chiefs may have avoided an away quarter-final had their lock been injury-free all season.
But the Chiefs were undone by the problems that have plagued their season - errors in handling and deficiency in discipline - and were unable to haul in a Highlanders side that hung tough in the face of a late salvo.
"They put us under a lot of pressure in that second half and I'm just really proud of the boys," Smith said. "It was a huge effort to just match them physically. They're quite a physical pack and that's what we were talking about all week."
All the talk had an essential effect because, for the justified hype surrounding an attack as electric as any in the competition, it was up front where the Highlanders were most impressive.
And they needed to be as an expected lift in playoff intensity saw both sides come up with more punches and counter-punches than a prize fight. The Highlanders probably edged the first half on points, particularly in a frenetic opening that threatened to crack open the opposition, but the Chiefs were in front on the scoreboard.
Owing their narrow advantage to a swarming display on defence, the Chiefs managed to snuff out an attack that was always enterprising when the ball was spread. Much of their ability to defuse the opposition came from fierceness at the collision, but both sides were brutal in that area as quality was continually cancelled out by crushing defence.
But the Chiefs could restrict the home side for only so long and, after a brilliant exchange between Naholo and Smith forged the first try, history repeated after the break to provide a decisive lead. From there, the Highlanders relied on the kicking of Lima Sopoaga and the commitment of numbers 1-23 to clinch an historic victory.
- by Kris Shannon
Highlanders 24 (Naholo 2 tries; Sopoaga 4 pens, con) Chiefs 14 (Retallick try; Horrell 3 pens) HT: 8-9