GARETH DUNCAN reports on the Chiefs’ 20-7 win over the Highlanders in Hamilton.
This match was a story of missed opportunities for both teams. The Chiefs and Highlanders delivered errant performances as handling mistakes were the common feature in the game. While it was a scrappy affair, the physical forwards battle was the highlight of the match – one that the Highlanders had the upper hand on from the outset.
Their heavies, who have been instrumental in their success this season, poached ball regularly at the tackle point and dominated the collisions at the breakdown. This saw the visitors starve the Chiefs of possession, and they capitalised on that early on. A Liam Sopoaga side step broke the Chiefs’ defensive line and a wide pass to Jason Rutledge on the wing gave the hooker an easy run in at the corner. Robbie Robinson added the extras for a seven-point advantage in the 10th minute.
However, that was how good as it got for the men from Dunedin. They struggled with injuries throughout the match. Before the game, Kade Poki was a late withdrawal, and his replacement James Paterson limped off with a shoulder injury at the end of the first quarter. Jamie Joseph had to use his last utility back reserve Matt Saunders (replacement scrumhalf Aaron Smith was the last backline player left on the wood) with 60 minutes still to go. Their situation worsened to the point that flanker Nick Crosswell finished the game on the wing.
The Highlanders momentum was also halted because of their own individual mistakes, like handling and poor passing, while the Chiefs started using more numbers at the breakdown, which contained the Highlanders’ strong counter rucking.
With that added pressure at the rucks, the Chiefs milked penalties as the Highlanders were punished for illegal driving. That set the platform for Stephen Donald to kick his team into the lead, but he only nailed two of his three goal attempts to see his team trail 7-6. And that’s how it finished at the break.
Against a weakened and fragile team, it didn’t take long before the Chiefs went ahead after the restart. They put seven phases together on attack in the opening moments as they broke into the Highlanders red zone. Brendon Leonard sniped the fringes for the hosts’ first try and Donald kicked the conversion. His third three-pointer thereafter made it 13-7.
The Chiefs had numerous chances to finish off the wounded Highlanders, but they butchered their opportunities. Donald was the main culprit as he missed an easy penalty and botched two five-pointers. The visitors also had one or two try-scoring chances, but the Chiefs’ defence was resolute. A Liam Messam try was the last action of the match and sealed a 13-point victory.