OVER 18,000 supporters were present in Hamilton to savour a fourth straight win for the resurgent Chiefs in Super Rugby, as they downed the reigning champion Crusaders 26-25 with a last-ditch penalty.
All Black Damien McKenzie, playing at ten for the Chiefs, landed the clutch kick in the 77th minute to hand Scott Robertson's Crusaders their second defeat of the season.
That set up a frantic final three minutes where Chiefs lock Naitoa Ah Kuoi ultimately proved the hero after earning a turnover penalty inside his own 22 - just as Richie Mo'unga sat in the pocket waiting to attempt a match-winning drop goal.
Interim Chiefs coach Clayton McMillan, who has come on board after Warren Gatland departed to British and Irish Lions duties, has overseen a transformation which has seen the Chiefs become a genuine title threat. With the Hurricanes at home and Blues away to come over the final two weeks, the Chiefs now have their finals hopes in their own hands.
The Crusaders, however, are stuttering, first suffering a shock home loss to the Highlanders and sneaking past the Hurricanes thanks to a David Havili drop goal after they lost All Blacks Jack Goodhue and Joe Moody to serious injuries.
Two tries from the Crusaders in the first half ensured the visitors held a comfortable 17-9 lead at the break. The Crusaders were largely in control at that point – clinically taking their chances until Mo'unga missed a simple conversion following Codie Taylor's sixth try of the season.
That opened the door for the Chiefs, down by six points, to launch a spirited comeback.
While the Crusaders still lead the championship, their recent form makes them seem anything but invincible. Their regular offside play has been more heavily penalised this year than in the past and Mo’unga’s form as a playmaker has been mixed.
The Dunedin-based Highlanders were clinging to the hope of a playoffs place until Friday when they beat the Auckland-based Blues 35-29. They now have a much stronger role in the playoffs race.
The exceptional Highlanders’ head coach Tony Brown has the leanest roster in Super Rugby Aotearoa but already has engineered wins over the Crusaders and the Blues, who started the season among the title favorites.
Under Brown, the Highlanders appear likely to become a major force in the future as they develop their young lineup.
The Blues, in contrast, are headed for another season of underachievement after losing three of their last four games. Their inability to secure a world-class coach who can draw the best from a star-studded roster has led to years of poor performances and another false dawn this season which began with promise.
They've also seen regular slumps in the form of leading players such as the All Black brothers Rieko and Akira Ioane.
In Australia, the Western Force's finals hopes are still alive after Argentinian flyhalf Domingo Miotti nailed a penalty after the final siren to lift his side to a 31-30 victory over the NSW Waratahs in Perth.
The Waratahs were on track for their first win of the Super Rugby AU season when unheralded flyhalf Ben Donaldson nailed his sixth kick of the night to give the visitors a 30-21 lead.
But the Force refused to give up, with a Jordan Olowofela try in the 72nd minute and a clutch Miotti conversion from the sideline reducing the margin to two points.
The Waratahs lost a line-out with just seconds remaining to give the Force one final chance of victory. The Force unleashed phase after phase after the final siren in a bid to find the winning points, and they got their chance when NSW were penalised for offside.
Miotti stepped up to the plate and calmly slotted the 21m penalty from in front to send the 9,253 crowd into raptures.
The result lifted the Force into third spot, three points clear of the Rebels.