Bryn Gatland’s late dropped goal ensured the Highlanders will celebrate Dunedin’s world-first rugby union return with a courageous victory over the Chiefs as Super Rugby Aotearoa made its somewhat frustrating debut.
For all the late drama, which saw Gatland turn match-winner and hand his father, Chiefs coach Warren, defeat, rugby’s return in the deep south after a three-month shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic was not an immediate success from a spectacle perspective as both teams grappled to come to grips with the referee’s new focus on the breakdown.
Tonight at least, the Highlanders won’t be complaining after their campaign got off to the perfect start. In the end, having scored three tries to two and enjoying the better of the match, they fully deserved their win after also surviving two yellow cards.
The first glance at the crackdown on the breakdown rules sparked a string of penalties as players learned the hard way there will be no wriggle room in this new competition. Referee Paul Williams dished out 30 penalties which often stunted the game’s flow just as it threatened to move through the gears in pristine conditions under the roof. The near-constant whistle brought a frustrating element to this contest, and is sure to be a talking point as teams attempt to adjust.
Twice the Highlanders were reduced to 14 men as wing Jona Nareki and fullback Vilimoni Koroi, a late call up to the starting line-up after an injury to one-test All Blacks first-five Josh Ioane, were sent to the sin bin. Koroi in particular was fortunate to only receive a yellow card on debut for a nasty tip tackle.
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The Chiefs rolled the dice by starting Aaron Cruden on the bench and they were also missing captain Sam Cane. Coming out of the break, they were disjointed for large patches. Their ball control, discipline and set piece all struggled to deliver quality possession but their late comeback almost stole the game.
Anton Lienert-Brown’s late try after some slick handling from Aaron Cruden gave Damian McKenzie the chance to snatch the lead but he dragged the 73rd minute conversion wide.
McKenzie then stepped up to nail his own dropped goal to give the Chiefs the lead, only for Gatland to return the favour with a clutch strike and hand the Highlanders the victory.
Playing in front of a passionate crowd over 20,000, and intent on righting frustrations from earlier in the season, the Highlanders were always going to arrive with purpose.
They did just with their forward pack, the lineout in particular, leading the way. Ash Dixon hit his targets and claimed the first try of the competition from one of many rolling mauls that the Highlanders executed superbly.
Sio Tomkinson joined the party as he profited from a brilliant angled run and offload from midfield partner Rob Thompson to push the Highlanders out to a 15-6 lead after 22 minutes.
The Chiefs’ ill-discipline proved costly – Pita Gus Sowakula pinged twice in two minutes as he attempted to adjust to the new focus on the breakdown laws. The visitors also lost lock Mitchell Brown to injury midway through the first half which disrupted their lineout options, but Sean Wainui’s long-range try in which the Chiefs were at their best sweeping the ball from both sides of the field closed the margin.
Koroi’s yellow card absence went largely unpunished – the Chiefs only collecting three points while the Highlanders managed to cross though No 8 Marino Mikaele Tu’u just before the break to take a 22-16 lead into halftime.
In the second spell the stop start nature of the match limited the Chiefs ability to build any form of momentum, leaving Warren Gatland plenty to work on before next week.
Highlanders 28 (Ash Dixon, Sio Tomkinson, Marino Mikaele Tu’u tries; Mitchell Hunt 2 cons, 2 pens, Bryn Gatland dropped goal)
Chiefs 27 (Sean Wainui, Anton Lienert-Brown tries, Damian McKenzie con, 4 pens, dropped goal)
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