Deja vu anybody?
Some hard questions will be asked when the Chiefs sit down for the first Monday morning review of the regular season, and rightly so too.
The margins are so incredibly thin in a competition of this intensity. One or two mistakes will render a fatal result. Giving the opposition license to dictate terms and trying to defend a lead certainly wasn’t the message the Chiefs coaches wanted to put across in the halftime team talk, but that’s certainly what it looked like on the grass after oranges.
Whether the Chiefs went into their shell or not will be up for debate. Opening their campaign with a 39-23 loss to a truly gutsy Highlanders team is something they will be able to accept and handle – just not the nature in which it all came about when the game was sitting on a platter.
Here’s the clean cut facts.
The Chiefs led 20-6 at one stage. From there, the Highlanders scored 33 points while the Chiefs only netted a penalty goal in response. 21 of the Highlanders 33 points came in less than 20 minutes in the middle period of the game.
Who could blame fans and pundits for having little faith that this Chiefs campaign will be better than the last?
The cruel thing for Sam Cane is that his side did the good things really well. The first quarter of the game was all Chiefs. Dazzling footwork, offloads galore, fantastic support lines, playing at a tempo which forced the Highlanders to make basic errors, most of which the visitors ultimately paid for with golden currency – points on the scoreboard.
Combining exciting rugby that threw caution to the wind when playing under advantage and an ability to remain patient when inside the red zone, the Chiefs looked well on course to start the season with a win and finally break that much-talked about streak of losses.
Coached by Tony Brown, the Highlanders are too classy a side to only rely middling penalty goals for the duration. Give them an inch, they’ll take it to the bank.
The Chiefs switched off as a unit. Individuals waited for one another to make something happen. There was a sense of frantic about their play with the little possession that did come in positions of opportunity. By then, the tide had turned.
Chiefs captain Sam Cane felt the intensity had dropped after halftime in particular.
“I thought we came out just that 10 percent off,” Cane said. “Almost like we were waiting for one another to make a first step or a first play. We tried to get the guys in as quickly as possible to get us singing off the same page.”
The Crusaders remain unbeaten, the Chiefs still haven't won a match and the Highlanders might have unveiled New Zealand's next big star, but who were the five best players in Super Rugby Aotearoa over the weekend? #SuperRugbyAotearoa https://t.co/LYlNIYnOuC
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) March 8, 2021
A look through the numbers shows that the Chiefs actually missed nearly 50 percent less tackles than the Highlanders (21 missed for the home side versus 39). Ultimately though, the tackles that were missed proved to be the terminal aspect of the encounter.
Jona Nareki, labelled the hero of the Highlanders come from behind win, was given far too much space and time to work his magic.
As Nareki trotted up the middle of the park, neither Cane nor Tupou Vaa’i could position themselves to make the two-on-one tackle with any semblance of accuracy. It wasn’t so much the strength and pace by Nareki as it was poor tackling technique on the part of the Chiefs duo.
Anton Lienert-Brown, renowned for his rugged defence, was victim to a bad defensive read and rightly shrugged off by Nareki.
Speaking of bad defensive reads – Shaun Stevenson didn’t have a lot of support out wide and chose to come forward to put the pressure on his opposite. From there, all Mitch Hunt had to do was pass on to Nareki for an easy dot down in the corner.
It’s a frustrating loss for the interim head coach at the Chiefs.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) March 8, 2021
“I really think we created a lot of our own pressure and we got a little bit frantic at times when we just needed that composure,” McMillan said.
“Defensively our systems were solid but some individual missed tackles were exploited and I think if we had have been able to get that [composure] we might’ve been sitting here talking a bit of a different story.”
“There were elements of our game that I was happy about because there’s things that we wanted to achieve and a style of rugby we wanted to play. For portions of the game when we did that we looked really good and pretty much shut out the Highlanders so we need to learn to be able to do that for longer.”
The stakes are high at this level. The directive from Cane, the spiritual leader of this side, is for all the players to be singing off the same page.
If the Chiefs can’t expand on the good signs showed early in their latest loss and continue to capitulate in key moments, they’ll easily find themselves knocking on the door of the worst-losing run for a New Zealand side in Super Rugby history.
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