Dunedin (New Zealand) (AFP) - The Waikato Chiefs suffered a major blow to their hopes of defending the Super 15 title with a 29-25 loss to the Otago Highlanders in Dunedin on Friday.
The Chiefs, champions in 2012 and 2013, scored three tries to two and led through long periods of the match, but could not shake a dogged Highlanders side determined to secure a finals berth.
They are fourth in the New Zealand conference and face a tough task to secure a top-six spot in the overall ladder for the chance to defend the title.
Highlanders captain Nasi Manu said his unfancied team showed their determination after trailing at half-time.
"We worked hard, we got a result," he said. "We've got two matches left and who knows what happens -- at least we've given ourselves a chance."
After a tight opening, the game burst to life just after 10 minutes when newly-minted All Black Malakai Fekitoa broke through the Chiefs' defence to set up Patrick Osborne for the opening try.
Fekitoa, who made his international debut in the just-completed series against England, evaded two defenders then offloaded to Ben Smith, who sent the ball to Osborne on the wing.
The Chiefs hit back immediately when Aaron Cruden's chip kick over the defence bounced favourably for Dwayne Sweeney, allowing the winger to cross for a converted try.
Fekitoa helped the Highlanders regain the lead early in the second half when he again caught the Chiefs napping and sent Ben Smith over for the Highlanders' second try.
With 15 minutes to go, Tim Nanai-Williams gave the Chiefs hope when he came off the bench to score a try with a sneaky side-step for a five-pointer.
Prop Josh Hohneck narrowed the gap to 29-25 in the final minutes but penalties ended up deciding the game, with the Highlanders slotting five and the Chiefs managing only two.