It’s difficult to get too excited about a team’s prospects when they’ve just lost their tenth match in a row by a 16-point margin.
But despite the eventual thumping dealt to the Chiefs by the visiting Highlanders, it wasn’t all bad news for the home side.
Before Jona Nareki came to life, playing a starring role in four of the Highlanders’ five tries, the Chiefs were very much on top of their opposition, cruising out to a 20-6 lead. It’s the first third of the game that former All Black James Parson has suggested the Chiefs need to emulate more consistently if they want to break their duck.
Speaking on the latest episode of the Aotearoa Rugby Pod, Parsons commented that the Chiefs had the wood over their opposition and were playing like the side that won back-to-back Super Rugby titles in 2012 and 2013. Were it not for some freakish magic from Nareki, the game could very easily have finished with the Chiefs posting a big score.
“It seriously was a one-man show and probably, if you look at it, that’s a positive for the Chiefs,” Parsons said. “It would’ve been a lot closer, if not a Chiefs win, had he not been on the field.
“They genuinely looked like the Chiefs of 2012 and 13. It was around the quick taps, the quick 22, keeping the ball alive, catching the team off-guard. You can see that Lienert-Brown was looking to quick tap and they got so much reward around that.
“And their breakdown was like… I know that when [former Chiefs forwards coach] Tom Coventry came to us, they called it ‘napalm’. They’d clean a ruck and there’d just be bodies everywhere. I think [Naitoa] Ah Kuoi picked through the middle and Brad Weber was there and that led to Sio Tomkinson’s yellow card.
“They had so much reward in that first 20. Sammy Cane, from the first kick-off, got that turnover. Sione Mafileo – chop tackle, Sammy Cane on the ball – boom.”
Despite sitting on a nine-match winless streak heading into the match, there was still reason for optimism for Chiefs fans. The key players were all on deck, including Cane, Weber, Lienert-Brown and Damian McKenzie, and new coach Clayton McMillan had come on board to cover for Warren Gatland’s absence.
That optimism appeared vindicated early in the game, with Luke Jacobson barrelling over for a try shortly before Damian McKenzie scampered in untouched.
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The no-look passes were finding supporting runners and the Chiefs were finding gaps in their opposition’s defensive line.
Then, with Ash Dixon in the bin, a third try looked all but guaranteed – until Tomkinson got fingertips to a chip kick from Bryn Gatland and a grateful Nareki collected the ball and galloped 90 metres down the field to score at the other end.
Still, a 20-11 lead heading into halftime was a good start for the home side, but they simply weren’t able to halt the Highlanders’ momentum in the second stanza.
Livewire halfback Folau Fakatava scored a solo try in the 50th minute to get the Highlanders within touching distance, and from their the visitors ran away with the game.
“The Highlanders came out with a little more vigour and they were starting to win the collision, which put [the Chiefs] on the back foot,” Parsons said. “[That] meant they couldn’t have the stability and … they weren’t showing the picture that the ref was seeing in that first 20 that allowed them to get those results.”
Jona Nareki proved on Friday night that one man can make all the difference.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) March 7, 2021
Still, the Blues centurion saw enough from the Chiefs to suggest that with a few tweaks, rewards will come in the near future.
“I don’t think it’s a drastic [problem] for the Chiefs. There’s a lot being said but I’m really positive for where they can go.
“I think, if you look at the tries of Nareki, it’s just one-on-one tackles and maybe some skill execution errors at key times like knock-ons and kicks out on the full that allowed the Highlanders into their territory which led to those opportunities – which are so fixable. They’re not system errors.
“Fakatava’s try, before he did the dummy – and that’s an individual error, to fall for the dummy and go – that was a wall. [The Highlanders] didn’t really look like they were getting through that, to me. I just felt like they were going back and forward, back and forward.
“And then Folau Fakatava scored and it’s almost like the floodgates opened from there.”
“But defensively, and their system – I know they were giving away a few penalties – but they looked good. I still think there’s positive enough signs to say that you’ll see some benefit this year. I’m not saying give up on this season. I was really impressed with what I saw.”
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