Winger Waisake Naholo has continued his outstanding year with two tries as the Highlanders downed the Chiefs 24-14 in a breath-taking encounter to book their berth in the Super Rugby semi-finals on Saturday night.
The uncapped Naholo, who is tipped to be included in the 41-strong All Blacks squad to be named on Sunday, took his season’s tally to 11, breaking the Highlanders record set by Jeff Wilson in 1998.
Both his touchdowns were set up by some incisive running by half-back Aaron Smith, who was one of the home team’s stars.
The high stakes in Dunedin produced an intense clash that threatened at times to boil over.
It was played at a frantic pace, with plenty of expansive rugby was well as desperate defence, and some bone-rattling tackles.
Chiefs inside centre Sonny Bill Williams produced one huge hit on flanker Elliot Dixon, and Highlanders opposite Malakai Fekitoa followed suit with a shot on five-eighth Andrew Horrell.
The Highlanders were left to await the outcome of the Stormers-Brumbies encounter in Cape Town on Sunday morning (NZT) to find out whether they would meet top seeds the Hurricanes or defending champions the Waratahs next weekend.
The Chiefs weathered a strong start by the Highlanders, who almost scored a sensational try with a minute on the clock.
A barging run by hooker Liam Coltman was continued with a Lima Sopoaga cross kick that wing Patrick Osborne pounced on to dot down.
To the disappointment of the home fans in the 22,500 crowd, replays showed Naholo had been forced into touch earlier in the 60-metre move.
The Highlanders did get the match’s opening try through Naholo in the 23rd minute, and it came off a brilliant play.
From a scrum inside his own territory, Smith made a snipe before producing some slick interpassing with Naholo.
The Chiefs kept themselves in the contest, edging possession and territory and two Horrell penalties put them up 9-8 at half-time.
But the Smithzna-Naholo partnership again proved unstoppable immediately after the restart.
Naholo carried the ball forward in an move that ended in an attacking 5m scrum, from which Smith drew the blindside defence to send the Fiji-born flyer over.
Sopoaga landed the conversion and a penalty to increase the gap to nine points.
The Chiefs hit back just before the hour when they pounded the line before lock Brodie Retallick crashed over.
But another Sopoaga penalty gave the Highlanders a seven-point buffer with a quarter-hour to go, and the first-five iced the result with a further penalty in the final minute.