The Highlanders held out to claim a 28-27 victory over the Chiefs in the penalty-ridden Vodacom Super Rugby Aotearoa opener in Dunedin on Saturday. DYLAN JACK reports.
The first match of New Zealand’s revamped domestic Super Rugby tournament had it all, from spectacular tries to a dramatic finish involving two drop goals.
However, the overall talking point will revolve around the way the match was officiated. Before the season started, New Zealand referees said they were going to be far harsher when it came to both the offsides and breakdown laws. In all, 30 penalties were conceded as both teams struggled to adapt, particularly when they were on the attack. This particular facet will be interesting to watch as the competition progresses.
The improved contest at the breakdown certainly made for an exciting spectacle of rugby. For the Highlanders it was a well-deserved. Despite losing two players – Vilimoni Koroi and Jona Nareki – to yellow cards, they not only stayed in the contest but were ahead for most of the time.
Tries from co-captain Ash Dixon, centre Sio Tomkinson and No 8 Marino Mikaele Tu’u gave the hosts a 22-16 lead at the break, with the Chiefs in the match thanks to fullback Damian McKenzie’s boot.
The second half was largely a stop-start affair as both sides regularly turned ball over at the breakdown. It looked as though the Chiefs had managed to pull something off when Anton Lienert-Brown worked his way over for a try before McKenzie nailed a drop goal from just outside the 22-metre area.
However, it was substitute Bryn Gatland – only included in the matchday 23 after Josh Ioane pulled out just before the match with an injury – who came on and calmly slotted a drop goal himself to hand his side the victory.
Highlanders – Tries: Ash Dixon, Sio Tomkinson, Marino Mikaele Tu’u. Conversion: Mitch Hunt (2). Penalty: Hunt (2) Drop goal: Bryn Gatland.
Chiefs – Tries: Sean Wainui, Anton Lienert-Brown. Conversion : Damian McKenzie. Penalties: McKenzie (4). Drop goal: McKenzie.
Highlanders – 15 Vilimoni Koroi, 14 Sam Gilbert, 13 Rob Thompson, 12 Sio Tomkinson, 11 Jona Nareki, 10 Mitch Hunt, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Marino Mikaele Tu’u, 7 Dillon Hunt, 6 Shannon Frizell, 5 Pari Pari Parkinson, 4 Josh Dickson, 3 Siate Tokolahi, 2 Ash Dixon (c), 1 Ayden Johnstone.
Subs: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Daniel Lienert-Brown, 18 Jeff Thwaites, 19 Manaaki Selby-Rickit, 20 Teariki Ben-Nicholas, 21 Kayne Hammington, 22 Bryn Gatland, 23 Teihorangi Walden.
Chiefs – 15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Shaun Stevenson, 13 Quinn Tupaea, 12 Anton Lienert-Brown, 11 Sean Wainui, 10 Kaleb Trask, 9 Brad Weber (c), 8 Pita Gus Sowakula, 7 Lachlan Boshier, 6 Luke Jacobson, 5 Tupou Vaa’i, 4 Mitchell Brown, 3 Nepo Laulala, 2 Samisoni Taukei’aho, 1 Aidan Ross.
Subs: 16 Bradley Slater, 17 Ryan Coxon, 18 Ross Geldenhuys, 19 Naitoa Ah Kuoi, 20 Dylan Nel, 21 Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, 22 Aaron Cruden, 23 Etene Nanai-Seturo.
Photo: Teaukura Moetaua/Getty Images