The Highlanders won a thrilling all Kiwi clash against the Chiefs, 29-25 as Super Rugby returned after a midseason break following the June Internationals.
The game started with an incredibly fast tempo. A lack of set piece accuracy from both sides though, meant that early phases of play led to nothing.
In the fifth minute, the Chiefs game plan was evident. Returning All Black, Aaron Cruden, used his impressive kicking ability and launched an up and under which was not dealt with by the Highlanders. Winger, Tom Marshall, chased well and was able to turn the ball over efficiently. Cruden converted the penalty and put the Chiefs 3-0 up.
Throughout the first half Cruden and team mates kicked to keep the ball in play. With successful chases, they caused havoc in the Highlanders ranks. The back three of the Highlanders were not coping well with this strategy and the Chiefs were gaining a territorial advantage because of it.
Against the run of play in the thirteenth minute, another set piece was turned over by the Highlanders. Fresh from his debut for the All Blacks, Malakai Fekitoa made a break, straightened up well, beat his man and gave a trademark offload to his support.
Ben Smith offloading with good slight of hand and winger, Patrick Osborne raced over in the corner to score. A quite blistering length of the field try.
Number ten, Lima Sopoaga converted to put the Highlanders 3-7 up.
An error strewn opening meant that neither team was able to hold onto possession. The ever maturing Cruden put in a clever grubber kick while inside the Highlanders twenty-two. Ben Smith misjudged the bounce of the ball allowing Dwayne Smith to score.
Cruden again converted to give the Chiefs an early 10-7 lead.
Smith, usually faultless and considered he is one of the best full backs in the world, was not having a good game. He was dropping high balls and his mistake cost his side a try, however his class did show through when he set up Osborne for the score.
New Zealand teams seem to smell blood when a turnover can be won. Both teams sniffed the opportunity and committed numbers to the breakdown.
Aggression was used well to win a turnover and the penalty penalty. Full back, Gareth Anscombe, kicked the penalty successfully from fifty metres out to extend the Chiefs' lead to 13-7.
Sopoaga then replied with a penalty of his own for the Highlanders. And that is how the two teams went in to the break.
The Chiefs were good value for their slight lead. Cruden was kicking well and the Highlanders were not able to deal with it.
The territorial battle was being won by the Chiefs. Brodie Retallick was also very impressive. Physically commanding, he bossed the line-out, stealing lots of ball from the Highlanders.
The Highlanders were still very much in the game. They dominated at scrum time which was allowing Fekitoa to run on to the ball at speed.
Ben Smith also looked good with ball in hand despite his defensive inefficiency.
A lack of quality at the line-out and too many errors usually contributes to a poor standard of match. This was an enticing battle with two physical defences, contesting the breakdown well. A very close encounter in the first half, with better to follow in the second.
Shortly after the break Sopoaga leveled the scores for the Highlanders at 13-13.
The Chiefs again started the half playing in the right areas of the pitch, bringing more continuity to their game and putting more phases of attacking play together.
The Highlanders defence forced the turnover with Aaron Smith lead the charge with a good break. The ball was distributed out wide where the imposing Fekitoa again drew his man and gave the pass with Ben Smith on hand to finish off the try. Sopoaga converted to give the Highlanders a 20-13 advantage.
The Highlanders ten had kicked everything and orchestrated the defence and made breaks of his own in attack. A very good performance.
Sopoaga then extended their lead with two further penalties. A sublime kicking performance. 13 26.
With fourteen minutes to go the Chiefs won a penalty. Cruden kicked to touch. From the resulting pressure, substitute, Tim Nanai-Williams, cousin of former All Black Sonny Bill Williams, scored a brilliant individual effort.
With a superlative left foot side-step he beat three players and displayed great strength to cross the whitewash.
Cruden missed the conversion. 18-26.
The Chiefs good work was undone though when their lack of discipline let them down. Substitute Hayden Parker slotted the penalty to make it 18-29.
Three minutes later more sustained pressure by the Chiefs led to prop, Josh Hohneck barreling his way over the line to score.
Cruden converted to make it 25-29 and set up a grandstand finish.
A great defensive effort enabled the Highlanders to hold on to their lead and win the match, ending a breathtaking second half.
The Chiefs will look back at this game and feel that it was a missed opportunity and led by Cruden their kicking game pinned the Highlanders back.
Retallick was at his best and led an abrasive pack in to battle, fronting up well and competing throughout.
The Highlanders were summed up by a brilliant defensive effort. Huge tackles, contesting at every breakdown and winning crucial turnovers. They turned defence in to attack and converted their chances.
Lima Sopoaga controlled things behind the ever dominant scrum, allowing Malakai Fekitoa to excel. His offloading game regularly caused the opposition problems and put his team mates in to space.
A serious player at this level and will be at Test level too.
Both teams made plenty of errors. The line-out was poor and at times there were handling mistakes. But a high tempo, physical defences and attacking intent shown by both sides proved a thrilling encounter, one which the Highlanders managed to win largely because they were ruthless in taking their chances when they had them.
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