The Highlanders strengthened their bid for a home play-off with a 36-9 bonus-point win over the Chiefs in Invercargill on Saturday. JON CARDINELLI reports.
The Highlanders played the smarter brand of rugby on a cold and wet night on New Zealand's south island. They kicked intelligently, and made the most of their point-scoring chances to earn a significant win over fierce rivals, the Chiefs.
The victory in Invercargill marks the Highlanders' 10th win in 2015. It's the first time the Highlanders have recorded 10 wins in a single campaign.
With regards to this year's campaign, the result is an important one in the race for play-off spots. The Highlanders have now surpassed the Chiefs on the Vodacom Super Rugby log, and if they maintain that fourth-place position over the next two weeks, they will enjoy home advantage in the qualifying play-off.
Chiefs fans may feel hard done by with regards to a decision made by the officials at the end of the first half. The Highlanders led by 11-3 at that point, and were camped on their own tryline. Chiefs flyhalf Marty McKenzie pushed through a grubber for his brother, Damian, to chase. The fullback beat the cover defence to the ball, and appeared to apply downward pressure. Unbelievably, the TMO Glenn Newman ruled that Damian McKenzie had knocked the ball on.
This decision robbed the Chiefs of an opportunity to reduce the deficit to a single point. The disallowed try meant the visitors trailed the Highlanders by 11-3 at the break.
But to say the Chiefs were robbed of victory would be grossly inaccurate. The Highlanders were the more accurate and physical of the two sides in contact. The home halfbacks ensured the Highlanders played the game in the right areas.
By contrast, the Chiefs were woefully inconsistent, both in terms of their accuracy and decision-making. In the 30th minute, scrumhalf Augustine Pulu opted to pass rather than kick from his own 22, and only succeeded in putting his team under pressure. The Chiefs lost possession, and the Highlanders would make the most of that opportunity, with Patrick Osborne finishing in the corner.
Shortly after half-time, Pulu made another big mistake on defence. The Highlanders brought Waisake Naholo into the attack at first-receiver, and the winger proceeded to break the line. Naholo then changed direction without losing much speed, and raced away to score in the right-hand corner.
At 18-6, the Highlanders had struck a big blow. The Chiefs were always going to struggle to come back from there.
Lima Sopoaga then converted a couple of penalty goal attempts to extend the hosts' lead. The Chiefs replied with a penalty goal of their own, but could not find their way to the tryline.
The Highlanders then moved up a gear in the last quarter, adding two further tries to bank the four-try bonus point. While they are unlikely to catch the Hurricanes at the top of the overall log, they are now in a great position to finish fourth in the standings and secure home advantage in the qualifying play-offs.
Highlanders – Tries: Patrick Osborne, Waisake Naholo, Richard Buckman, Ben Smith. Conversions: Lima Sopoaga (2). Penalties: Sopoaga (4).
Chiefs – Penalties: Damian McKenzie (3).
Highlanders – 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Richard Buckman, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Dan Pryor, 7 John Hardie, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Alex Ainley, 3 Josh Hohneck, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Brendon Edmonds.
Subs: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Daniel Lienert-Brown, 18 Ross Geldenhuys, 19 Joe Latta, 20 Gareth Evans, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Marty Banks, 23 Jason Emery.
Chiefs – 15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Hosea Gear, 13 Charlie Ngatai, 12 Anton Lienert-Brown, 11 Bryce Heem, 10 Marty McKenzie, 9 Augustine Pulu, 8 Michael Leitch, 7 Sam Cane, 6 Maama Vaipulu, 5 Michael Fitzgerald, 4 Ross Filipo, 3 Ben Tameifuna, 2 Hika Elliot, 1 Pauliasi Manu.
Subs: 16 Quentin MacDonald, 17 Siate Tokolahi, 18 Mitchell Graham, 19 Brian Alainu’uese, 20 Mitchell Crosswell, 21 Brad Weber, 22 Andrew Horrell, 23 Tim Nanai-Williams.
Referee: Nick Briant (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Shane McDermott (New Zealand), Mike Lash (New Zealand)
TMO: Glenn Newman (New Zealand)
Photo: Diane Manson/Getty Images