Highlanders Triumph In An Epic Encounter

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From the outset, this match was always going to be memorable. The outcome saw the Highlanders triumph in an epic encounter that was played out at the very highest levels of Super Rugby.

Fortunate enough to be on-hand to witness it from Forsyth-Barr Stadium myself, it had all the hallmarks of a classic. A full house that made the atmosphere feel like a cauldron. And the resulting 80 minutes was simply breathtaking. Won 25-15 by the home team, at full time fans were relieved and completely spellbound. Out of breath many, as the action took hold from minute one. The rugby was sublime, from attack to defence. Both teams should be commended for the style and substance of the match.

The Chiefs began well, nailing an early try to Tony Pulu. With that good start, the match then brought a long period of front-on tackling by the home side, holding out the challenge from the visitors. When able to, the Highlanders launched successful attacks but a number of times had tries disallowed.

Firstly when Luke Whitelock seemed to burrow over, only to be deemed ‘just short’. The second time, a well constructed Waisake Naholo try was called for obstruction. Shepherding was the call, but the Chiefs player seemed to object so loudly, referee Glenn Jackson acted accordingly. The two teams were very, very even and it only held the anticipation for home town fans ‘this would be a tough watch’.

Match full of counter-attack and half chances

In fact, the counter-attack and transition from holding off their opponent to running at them was top rate. It had to be, as the ferocity of tackles and challenge at the breakdown saw many turnovers. 15 from the Chiefs alone might well have contributed to the result. Coach Dave Rennie was realistic when he commented post match “we’re pretty disappointed. We gave away too many penalties and we just didn’t do the ‘obvious’ things well enough. Can’t keep giving them the advantage” and his team ultimately paid for that.

Coming into this game as New Zealand (NZ) conference leaders, they now find themselves with a day or two to reflect and to now prepare for a longhaul trip to Cape Town [to face the Stormers]. Oh how things change, and during the match the advantage turned for the home team when with 10 minutes to go in the first half, some pressure finally told. With good build-up, local hero Naholo was finally freed down the edge of the field and scored a sensational try. A tough kick, Lima Sopoaga missed and with no change to the scores, teams headed to halftime at 5-7.

Halftime entertainment was also very interactive I must say. The TUX hot-air blimp flew over the crowd delivering prizes to spectators below. And at times, came within only 20 feet of the stands. It had the locals and visiting Chiefs’ fans engaged while they chewed over the halftime score. The banter between supporters on each side is what can make the game enjoyable. Friendly rivalry off the field, as your teams smash each other on it.

Chiefs defence key to low First Half scoreline

It was nowhere near the frenetic pace which the earlier Super Rugby game had been. The Crusaders hosted the Hurricanes in the 5:15pm game and there were tries and ball running to entertain the fans. Won 10-35, it surprised many and had provided the Wellington side with a five point haul to burst into top position on the NZ conference ladder. A pounding that few saw coming, especially Kieran Read and his men. They had only managed to beat the Blues in local derby games, and that poor trend continued tonight.

40 minutes in Dunedin had not produced the same output of points scored, so would the two sides be prepared to ‘throw the ball around now?’ No, and that was because each side were more cautious. You felt they really focused on line defence; especially the Chiefs. As one would attack the others line, it was repelled and then reset. Aaron Smith had to do his share of tackling, and with little options he seemed frustrated. After Dan Pryor replaced Lentjes, the little general sniped more and found a gap. It moved from side-to-side and Patrick Osborne used a clever kick to very nearly break the deadlock. Now they saw their opportunity.

The ball was now going the hosts way. Soon a telling moment occurred. In the heat of battle, Tom Sanders lifted Ben Smith and in a poorly executed tackle appeared to spike him into the ground. The jeers of the fans gave the ref no option but to yellow card Sanders. An immediate penalty had the scores at 11-8, ahead for the first time in the game and with bolstered enthusiasm. That increased the tempo and attack seemed inevitable. Sensing their chance, the ball moved quickly through the hands and then back toward the left hand side. A scything run by Matt Faddes opened up space and with polished interplay, Ben Smith was able to link and then pass to the ‘Man of the match’ Pryor to score. Immaculate execution from the 2015 champions.

Highlanders gaining parity

While that was their best try of the night, it din’t stop the Chiefs from opposing the hosts chances. Sam Cane never stopped and Aaron Cruden attempted a variety of kicks–some with little success. They are not the leading NZ team for nothing, so with equal pressure and incoming replacement forwards, it gave the opposition good territory. Substitute Lachlan Bosheir crashed over soon after. Back to 18-15, it was now a very tight contest. A quarter of an hour left to secure the best position on the table was motivation for both.

The tipping point seemed to be when Faddes went deep into the Chiefs territory. Close to the line, the ball spilled out of his hands. Glenn Jackson called for a scrum but interestingly, the TMO announced that he needed to review the play. An incoming Chiefs forward ‘slapped’ the ball backwards and Sopoaga then benefited as he had collected the loose ball and touched down. Try. That final act was enough to secure a win.

A tense win and it had so many implications: final round-robin game, the conference standings and ultimately, leaving the Highlanders full of confidence from the result and the Chiefs dumbstruck as to the ramifications.

Chiefs drop from first to third in NZ conference

Standings prior to the result had the Chiefs sitting in a position to hold a home quarter final. After tonight, they now appear to have a long trip on their hands. Head coach Dave Rennie conceded his men will spend much of that trip with ‘homework on the Stormers’. A team no NZ side has faced, and a team with far less competition points/wins than either team tonight. The incredible turnaround is an anomaly of the conference system–a complete new argument.

While the conundrums of the SANZAAR system could make for an entire series of conversations, the epic encounter reinforced the known fact. The best teams were playing tonight. The Lions from Johannesburg will round-off the regular season when a ‘B’ side meets the Jaguares. The strategy of that decision will impact directly on the final standings. Last Word On Sports will delve into those calculations early next week, but were engrossed in the match-up tonight. In both games and also by the environment.

The Highlanders franchise has grown from the bottom placed side in 2014 to become a real ‘player’. No disrespect, but they have grown up. The ability to absorb pressure and to achieve the desired result is more mental than it is physical. They did it to the Crusaders, to the Lions and to the Brumbies. Their home is a fortress and the organisation is more than a match for any in the competition.

Highlanders Triumph In An Epic Encounter

The two sides now go their separate ways. Two equally formidable opponents and by good coaching and in good practice, the Highlanders persevered tonight. It was a an engrossing match, a satisfying game to watch as a fan of rugby and the better team achieved their goal. Now the elimination stages begin, with a knockout result. In that, the Highlanders seem better placed to go far in the championship. Coach Jamie Joseph told waiting reporters that:

“it would be a big ask to travel to Africa. Canberra is a better bet. We’ll sleep happily in our own beds for a few days now. At the end of the game the guys showed real resilience [at the end of the game]. They could have scored, so that’s a big thing for us. We’ll get a good nights sleep and look at it next week”.

While the 23 Highlanders players rest easy before a trip over the Tasman, his counterpart Dave Rennie and his logistics team now have to plan to travel halfway across the globe. Rennie says “we know we can win, we just need to do a little homework and watch some videos [of the Stormers]”. I know which bed I’d prefer to lye in tonight. After an epic encounter like this, it is a shame the loser has to now pick up their bags and travel so far–to face a team they out-scored in the regular season. But if any team might achieve that victory, it could very well be the Chiefs.

Tonight they gave the Highlanders one hell of a tough match. But then again, that is why they call it Super Rugby.

“Main picture credit”