Despite the eventual 39-23 loss that the Chiefs suffered at the hands of the Highlanders on Friday night, there’s genuinely good reason for fans of the embattled franchise to feel optimistic following their opening game of the 2021 season.
Because although they were soundly beaten on the scoreboard – suffering their worst loss since April 2019, the nature of the defeat was so different to how they were bested time and time again throughout their first campaign under Warren Gatland.
Last year, the Chiefs managed to, more often than not, dominate the possession and territory stats. With the ball and position they had, however, they weren’t able to produce any sort of penetrative attack. Time after time, players trucked the ball up into the opposition line but there was no incisiveness or creativity to be found and defenders had no problem bringing the Chiefs to ground.
Come the end of the season, the Chiefs had the second-most carries of any team – just behind the Hurricanes. Damningly, however, they were last in the competition when it came to metres gained per carry (2.4 metres) and linebreaks made per carry (one every 27 runs), illustrating how ineffective their attack was despite having mountains of possession.
They also had the second-most 22-entries of the five franchises (again, behind the Hurricanes), but scored the fewest points and the fewest tries. Opportunity after opportunity presented itself – and the Chiefs failed to land the telling blow.
That wasn’t the case on Friday night, however.
Between Samisoni Taukei’aho, Tupou Vaa’i, Luke Jacobson and reserve Ollie Norris, the Chiefs forwards churned through metres on attack – considerably more than their Highlanders counterparts.
They averaged 3.3 metres per carry, which is more efficient and damaging than even the top-ranked Hurricanes were throughout last year’s Super Rugby Aotearoa season.
The backs were also more dangerous, with Damian McKenzie, Etene Nanai-Seturo, Jonah Lowe and replacement Alex Nankivell all regularly finding holds in the Highlanders defence.
As a whole, the Chiefs made more ground than the Highlanders on attack, beat twice as many defenders as their opposition and controlled territory well throughout the game. In their first three visits to the Highlanders 22, the Chiefs scored three times – one penalty and two tries.
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Their calmness and dominance, combined with a little bit of help from the referee in the form of two yellow cards, helped the side out to a 20-6 lead.
Then disaster struck.
On their fourth visit to the Highlanders 22, Bryn Gatland’s attempted chip over the defence was charged down by Patelesio Tomkinson and ricocheted straight into the arms of Jona Nareki.
Ten seconds later, the Highlanders had their first try of the game – and from that point on, everything went pear-shaped for the Chiefs – or at least that’s what the resulting score would have you believe.
Following Nareki’s first try, the Highlanders piled a further 28 points on the shell-shocked Chiefs. The home side managed just a solitary penalty in response. What was looking like a bonus point win turned into a 16-point loss.
But not everything fell apart for the Chiefs in the 50 minutes that followed Nareki’s length of the field try.
Quantitatively, they were still the better side in many facets of the game – including most of the attacking stats.
Yes, some Highlanders players made some worthwhile contributions throughout the game but, by and large, they were outplayed by their opposites.
Except for one clear, exceptional case.
Nareki, the man who kicked off the Highlanders fight-back, was a constant thorn in the Chiefs side and while it wouldn’t necessarily sit well with some traditionalists or will forever claim that no one individual is bigger than the team, Nareki was bigger than the Highlanders on Friday evening – and he was bigger than the Chiefs too.
Nareki ran for 192 metres throughout the game – 45 per cent of the Highlanders’ total 431 metres. He also made five out of his side’s 11 line breaks and beat nine defenders, half of the Highlanders’ total.
It’s not like Nareki was being given exceptional passes on the outside having already flanked the defensive line either – Nareki was both the creator and the infiltrator when it came to breaking through the Chiefs defence.
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In some way, it almost wasn’t too dissimilar to how the Chiefs struggled at times last season. Little moments – be it knock-ons, poor passes or even the bounce of the ball – cost the Chiefs to varying degrees throughout the 2020 campaign and it was a similar story on Friday just with one major difference.
Nareki was the man who generated the little moments.
In the lead up to the Highlanders’ second try of the night, Sam Cane and Tupou Vaa’i missed straightforward tackles on Nareki (at least as far as any tackle on Nareki can be considered ‘straightforward’) before Brad Weber was also bumped to the ground.
For the Highlanders’ third, Anton Lienert-Brown rushed out of the defensive line to shut Nareki down on the 22 but only succeeded in temporarily slowing the winger before he skipped out of the tackle and headed for the corner.
Nareki’s last of the night was his easiest of the bunch, simply having to touch down in the corner off a pass from Mitch Hunt – but not every winger would have managed to slip in Damian McKenzie covering.
That wasn’t the end of Nareki’s involvement, however, with the No 11 slipping past generally safe defender Luke Jacobson to almost create one last score for the Highlanders. Jacobson seemingly thought he had Nareki covered until the Highlander accelerated in a flash and the All Black barely laid a finger on him.
While the Chiefs were generally comfortable keeping the Highlanders at bay, it was when Nareki stepped up to the plate that the game was turned on its head.
That doesn’t excuse the result by any means. The loss hands the 2012 and 2013 champions their 10th on the bounce, tying them with the Highlanders for a New Zealand side’s worst-ever losing streak in Super Rugby (though a quarter of the Highlanders’ did come to Australian and South African teams).
Proud men were made to look like fools by Jona Nareki – and there’ll be plenty more defenders who are also stood up by the former New Zealand Sevens rep as the season progresses.
But aside from their struggles with the one-man wonder, new coach Clayton McMillan will be pleased with the overall performance of his side – and next week’s match against the Crusaders in Christchurch may not be as straightforward a result as many will likely be predicting.
One on one misses aside, the Chiefs already look a more dangerous side than 2020’s iteration – and that will reap rewards as the completion unfolds.
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