JON CARDINELLI watched the Chiefs beat the Highlanders 27-21 in Dunedin to book their place in the Super Rugby knockout rounds.
This victory, as so many of the Chiefs’ results in 2012, was built on a robust and accurate performance at the breakdown.
Their option taking and tactical kicking wasn’t always good, but they maintained their intensity at the tackle throughout the game. This allowed them to resist the Highlanders in the first 40, and then secure the result in the second stanza.
The Highlanders had the best of both territory and possession in the first half, but were undone by the determined Chiefs defence. They enjoyed frequent surges into the Chiefs’ 22 but surrendered the ball when the visitors loaded the rucks and pressured scrumhalf Aaron Smith. The All Blacks No 9 was forced to rush his pass or drop the ball as the rabid Chiefs forwards piled into the ruck with unstoppable momentum.
The Chiefs showcased their counter-attacking threat during this period, using a breakdown turnover to create a try for wing Tim Nanai-Williams. However, they were fortunate that they didn’t concede more points in the first half. Their tactical kicking was poor, and several wayward kicks by Aaron Cruden prevented them from escaping their own territory.
The Highlanders weren’t good enough to use this territorial advantage to edge ahead on the scoreboard. In fact, a late lapse allowed the Chiefs to score eight points right before half-time, a purple patch of scoring that effectively won the game for the visitors.
Cruden extended the Chiefs lead to 21-9 right after the break, and from there the Highlanders were chasing the game. Given their impotency on attack during the early stages and the manner in which they were losing the collisions, it appeared an impossible task.
They enjoyed some good fortune when the TMO awarded a controversial try. The Chiefs had done well to contest a lineout and tip the ball back on their side, but the Highlanders reacted quickly to put the visitors under pressure.
It seemed as if Tawera Kerr-Barlow had the ball on the ground before Andrew Hore ripped it away and planted it beyond the tryline. It seemed a clear case of hands in the ruck, although between the officials it was decided that Hore’s steal was legal and that the try would stand.
Chris Noakes missed the subsequent conversion but the Highlanders were suddenly just seven points behind. The Chiefs enjoyed more territory in the period that followed, and although Cruden would miss a shot at goal, the pressure applied by his forwards created another opportunity. The three points stretched the Chiefs’ lead to 10 with only 15 minutes remaining.
The Highlanders grew more desperate and this impacted on their discipline. They infringed right in front of their own poles and Cruden banked another penalty.
Hosea Gear managed to power over from close range in the 77th minute to set up a frantic finish. But in the end it was the Chiefs defence that had the final say.
The result sees the Chiefs consolidating their position at the top of the log. Their next two matches will determine whether they host a play-off or not, but it will be a comfort to know that they’ve already booked their place in the final six.
The defeat is a blow to the Highlanders’ play-off ambitions. They have just one match remaining before a bye in the final round. Even if they win next week, they will need a few other results to go their way in order to make the final cut.