The Highlanders sneaked home 18-16 over the Hurricanes after both sides worked each other to a standstill in their Super Rugby derby in Wellington on Friday.
The Hurricanes scored the only try in the tense, high-stakes battle, with the Highlanders relying on the boot of five-eighth Hayden Parker to get them home.
Parker kicked five penalties before landing the match-winning drop goal with 16 minutes remaining.
In the countdown to the final whistle, the Hurricanes squandered two chances to snatch back the lead.
Andre Taylor, who took over the kicking duties from an injured Beauden Barrett, missed a close-range penalty, and a try to TJ Perenara was disallowed when television replays detected obstruction by a Hurricanes forward.
“It was one of those games where each team didn’t want to give up much so it was pretty tight,” said Highlanders captain Ben Smith, who described the outcome as an “ugly” victory.
Both sides started on 30 points, with the Hurricanes sixth on the table and the Highlanders seventh.
While the win kept the Highlanders in finals contention, the Hurricanes suffered a significant blow to their top-six hopes.
The Hurricanes led 13-9 at halftime, with Perenara scoring the only try in the match, Barrett landing two penalties and Taylor a conversion and penalty.
Perenara’s try came with the score locked at 6-6 shortly before halftime, when he slipped around a Highlanders scrum to knock the ball out of Aaron Smith’s hands and then recover possession.
The Highlanders squandered three try-scoring opportunities in the first half when they ran out of numbers at the breakdown in multiple-phase play, allowing the Hurricanes to win crucial defensive turnovers, leaving them reliant on Parker’s boot.
Highlanders’ rising star Malakai Fekitoa and All Blacks veteran Conrad Smith cancelled each other out in the centre, although defensively Fekitoa stood out for cutting down both Cory Jane and Julian Savea from behind when tries to the Hurricanes appeared imminent.
The Highlanders have now won five of their six games since beating the Hurricanes for the first time this year two months ago in round six.
The Hurricanes have won five of their seven games since then.