The Chiefs were given a thorough workout by the Highlanders before claiming their second win of the Super Rugby season with a 21-19 win at Waikato Stadium on Saturday.
Co-captains Liam Messam and Aaron Cruden had to call on all their experience and skills to lift their team out of a slumber that left them unable to break the confidence and application of the Highlanders.
The Dunedin-based team competed at every phase but in the end the composure of the Chiefs allowed them to close out a tight contest.
Demonstrating what has made them the Super Rugby champions over the past two years, the Chiefs came back after going to half-time 7-16 down. Showing a greater determination to hang onto the ball, they launched a string of pick-and-goes at the Highlanders line and the defence cracked in the 47th minute when Liam Messam broke through.
Both sides rung the changes and play ebbed and flowed with the Highlanders extending their lead by three courtesy ofLima Sopoaga's fourth penalty goal. However, it was Chiefs replacement flanker Liam Squire who charged away on a fine break that regained the lead for the home team.
A superbly-weighted cross-field kick by Cruden was controlled beautifully by wing Asaeli Tikoirotuma before he passed to Charlie Ngatai to score wide out. That proved no issue to Cruden who landed a fine conversion to put the Chiefs out to 21-19.
The home team had scored the first try of the evening after 10 minutes when quick hands down the short side created room which wing Tim Nanai-Williams utilised to great effect to score.
But applying some old-fashioned grunt up front the Highlanders continued to shut down the home team. Any thought the visitors would miss the experience and know-how of veteran Brad Thorn were quickly dispelled as Tasman lock Joe Wheeler stepped up to revel in the situation.
Combining with fellow lock Jarrad Hoeta, they provided the impetus for some Highlanders driving play which was rewarded in the 32nd minute from a lineout when Wheeler secured the ball and set up a rolling maul which was executed to perfection for flanker John Hardie, who was similarly effective in the loose, to touch down.
Wing Malakai Fekitoa was effective on the break with the ball and complemented the work of the forewards while flyhalfLima Sopoaga kept the pressure on with some well-placed kicks.
The Highlanders demonstrated the new spirit that is abroad in their side and to push the defending champions so hard was evidence of how far their game has come.