The Highlanders have further loosened the Chiefs’ hold on the Super Rugby title with a 29-25 win in a hard-fought contest that produced a nail-biting ending in Dunedin.
The loss was the third in a row for the Chiefs and it keeps the two-time defending champions outside the top six with two rounds to go.
But the Highlanders, despite being outscored three tries to two, find themselves up in third place as they bid to break a 12-year play-off drought.
Lima Sopoaga’s boot proved decisive, the first five-eighth landing all his six shots at goal for 16 points to go past assistant coach Tony Brown’s franchise season record of 150 points.
It was yet another narrow finish for the southerners, 11 of whose 14 matches this season have been settled by seven points or fewer.
They have finished on the right side of the ledger in six of them.
They broke a tight contest open in the 49th minute, with their three All Blacks – Aaron Smith, Malakai Fekitoa and Ben Smith – all involved.
After the home side absorbed a period of pressure, hooker Brayden Mitchell grabbed a turnover to set up a big breakout.
Aaron Smith decided against kicking, Fekitoa and winger Richard Buckman carried the attack upfield before Buckman, who also had a strong game defensively, timed his pass to put Ben Smith over.
The conversion made it 20-13 and two further Sopoaga penalties gave the Highlanders some breathing room.
Substitute back Tim Nanai-Williams gave the Chiefs hope with 12 minutes to go when he stepped his way over.
Another of the Chiefs’ bench, prop Josh Hohneck set up a grandstand finish when he powered across the line with five minutes to go, but the Highlanders held on.
The first half featured a contest in which both sides were able to disrupt the other’s set piece, meaning neither could create continuity.
After conceding an early penalty, the Highlanders got the game’s first try after some strong running by midfield backs Shaun Treeby and Fekitoa created the chance for winger Patrick Osborne.
The Chiefs hit back almost immediately thanks to a wicked bounce from an Aaron Cruden grubber.
The ball beat a covering Ben Smith and landed in the hands of winger Dwayne Sweeney to dot down.