The Highlanders produced one of the most impressive comebacks in recent memory to stun the Chiefs in Hamilton on Sunday.
Trailing 0-24 after the first quarter and 7-31 after 42 minutes, the men from Dunedin scored four unanswered tries to secure a thrilling 33-31 win.
It is a result that leaves British and Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland still winless since his return to New Zealand.
It will result in even more questions about his commitment with the Chiefs, who have now lost twice at the death against a spirited Highlanders team.
The match echoed the two teams’ Round One encounter, when the Highlanders also came from behind to secure a late 28-27 win in Dunedin.
In Week One it was a Bryn Gatland drop-goal that sank his father’s side.
This time, it was Sio Tomkinson who was the hero as he scored a thrilling injury time try to give his side the win in what must surely be heralded as the match of the season.
It was a win that nobody would have seen coming by the 22nd minute, given how things panned out from the get-go.
Deprived of field position throughout the opening five minutes of the match, the Highlanders were punished through a Lachlan Boshier try.
Patient build-up by the hosts was rewarded when the flank burst through a gap created by a Rob Thompson slip up, allowing Boshier to scorch in under the posts untouched.
Highlanders flyhalf Mitch Hunt had the chance to put a dent in the Chiefs’ lead just moments later via a penalty attempt, after some good continuity from his side placed them inside the opposition half for the first time in the match.
The sprayed kick at goal from out in front let the home side off the hook, though, and Warren Gatland’s men showed no mercy in retaliating.
A slew of infringements put the ball back into the other end of the field, and some hard, direct running was enough for Anton Lienert-Brown to double the Chiefs’ lead.
The Highlanders’ lack of discipline continued to hurt the visitors, with Rob Thompson sent to the bin for a high shot on young lock Tupou Vaa’i.
McKenzie nailed the ensuing 45-metre penalty attempt to leave the 14-man Highlanders in a real rut as they faced a 0-17 deficit after just 15 minutes.
The onslaught carried on while Thompson served his sentence in the naughty chair.
Further penalties went against the Highlanders, which let the Chiefs set up a rolling maul from a line-out five metres from their line.
Hooker Bradley Slater reaped the rewards as his forward pack marched their way through their opponents to heap more misery on the out-of-sorts southerners.
Some impressive athleticism by Shannon Frizell from the following restart provided the Highlanders with a source of inspiration as they eyed to get themselves on the board and chew into the Chiefs’ hefty lead.
A pair of handling errors by Marino Mikaele-Tu’u and Aaron Smith just moments apart from each other with the opposition tryline in sight looked to have killed off their chances of doing just that.
However, the Chiefs couldn’t maintain their discipline in their quest to hold out the Dunedin franchise, and the Highlanders’ sturdy line-out drive laid the platform for Mikaele-Tu’u to crash over on the half hour mark.
Bolstering their chances of an unlikely comeback was Chiefs captain Sam Cane’s dismissal to the sin bin for excessive infringements in the space of about four minutes.
His absence injected plenty of confidence into the Highlanders’ attack at the back-end of the half, but the undermanned Chiefs managed to hold out their energised opponents to take a 17-point lead (24-7) into half-time.
The long-awaited return of All Blacks playmaker Josh Ioane was completed as the second half kicked off, with the 24-year-old entering the fray in place of the error-prone Thompson.
His entrance into the game couldn’t stop the Chiefs from starting the second stanza with a bang, though, as an early penalty allowed the hosts to set up a rolling maul from close range.
As he did in the first half, Slater took full advantage of the situation to push his side’s lead out by another seven points.
It didn’t take long for the Highlanders to hit back, though, with a heads-up play down the short side – mixed in with some beautiful distribution – enough to set Hunt away for his second try of the Super Rugby Aotearoa campaign.
The increased impetus of the Highlanders’ attack noticeably coincided with Ioane’s induction in a playmaking capacity, illustrating how much he had been missed in the opening half of the season.
It was his halfback partner, Smith, who proved to be more impressive of the duo, however, when he combined with the ever-present McKay and reserve lock Manaaki Selby-Rickit to score a scintillating counter-attack try that started inside their own half.
That renewed sense of energy with ball in hand not only made for captivating viewing, but it put the Highlanders within striking distance of the hosts as the match entered the final quarter.
An overthrown line-out by replacement hooker Liam Coltman looked to have put that all to waste when McKenzie splintered the Highlanders’ defence to score his side’s fifth try of the afternoon, but an accidental offside called against Kaleb Trask acted as a lifeline for the visitors.
From there, the Highlanders edged their way deep into enemy territory to set up a series of pick-and-go’s with the tryline begging.
A breakdown turnover forced by Boshier looked to have defused that threat, but the Highlanders were unrelenting as they continued to chase the unlikeliest of comebacks.
Step up Jona Nareki, who caught the Chiefs napping on defence to canter in untouched from 40 metres with just five minutes to play, and the trusty boot of Hunt closed the gap to only five points.
The Chiefs looked to have solidified their win when Boshier snatched another penalty at the breakdown, but a Ross Geldenhuys infringement handed the Highlanders one last chance at victory.
Tasked with halting the Highlanders’ line-out right on their own line, the Chiefs couldn’t do anything as Smith flung the ball wide from the back of the maul to send Tomkinson through a gaping hole to score under the posts with time up on the clock.
Scenes of jubilation were evident in both the coaching box and on the field as the midfielder dotted down for what proved to be the winning score – with the help of Hunt’s successful conversion.
By comparison, the Chiefs’ coaching box and playing contingent cast a grim picture of dejection and despair as they continue their quest to clinch their first win of the Super Rugby Aotearoa season.
The result leaves the Hamiltonians rooted to the bottom of the competition’s standings ahead of next week’s clash with the Blues, who lead the fourth-placed Highlanders by just three points leading into the latter side’s upcoming bye week.
Man of the match: Lachlan Boshier did his level best to secure the win for the Chiefs, with some crucial turnovers. However, it was the Aaron Smith-inspired Highlanders that produced a stunning late rally. The All Black scrumhalf, Smith, wins our awards.
For the Chiefs:
Tries: Boshier, Lienert-Brown, Slater 2
Cons: McKenzie 4
For the Highlanders:
Tries: Mikaele-Tu’u, Hunt, Smith, Nareki, Tomkinson
Cons: Hunt 4
Yellow cards: Rob Thompson (Chiefs, 14 – foul play, high tackle), Sam Cane (Chiefs, 30 – repeated infringements, offside)
Chiefs: 15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Sean Wainui, 13 Anton Lienert-Brown, 12 Alex Nankivell, 11 Solomon Alaimalo, 10 Kaleb Trask, 9 Brad Weber, 8 Pita Gus Sowakula, 7 Sam Cane (captain), 6 Lachlan Boshier, 5 Mitchell Brown, 4 Tupou Vaa’i, 3 Nepo Laulala, 2 Bradley Slater, 1 Aidan Ross.
Replacements: 16 Samisoni Taukei’aho, 17 Reuben O’Neill, 18 Ross Geldenhuys, 19 Adam Thomson, 20 Mitchell Karpik, 21 Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, 22 Aaron Cruden, 23 Quinn Tupaea.
Highlanders: 15 Michael Collins, 14 Josh McKay, 13 Rob Thompson, 12 Sio Tomkinson, 11 Scott Gregory, 10 Mitch Hunt, 9 Aaron Smith (co-captain), 8 Marino Mikaele-Tu’u, 7 Shannon Frizell, 6 Dillon Hunt, 5 Jack Whetton, 4 Pari Pari Parkinson, 3 Siate Tokolahi, 2 Ash Dixon, 1 Ayden Johnstone.
Replacements: 16 Liam Coltman (co-captain), 17 Ethan De Groot, 18 Jeff Thwaites, 19 Manaaki Selby-Rickit, 20 Jesse Parete, 21 Folau Fakatava, 22 Josh Ioane, 23 Jona Nareki.
Referee: Mike Fraser
Assistant referees: Paul Williams, James Doleman
TMO: Brendon Pickerill