Aaron Smith scored a late try to help a 14-man Highlanders side beat the Chiefs 30-27 in Hamilton on Friday. JON CARDINELLI reports.
At one point, the Chiefs looked to be on course for a bonus-point victory. The game appeared to be theirs to lose when replacement Highlanders back Sio Tomkinson was shown a red card in the 67th minute.
Somehow, the Highlanders managed to hit back in the dying stages and overtake the hosts. Smith, who made a big difference when he came on in the second stanza, controlled the forwards superbly during that period and took an excellent decision to dart for the line and score.
The Chiefs came into this clash with an inexperienced side. With All Blacks such as Sam Cane and Damian McKenzie ruled out with injuries, the onus was on the youngsters to pull together and get the 2019 campaign off to a strong start.
They were tested in the early stages, with the Highlanders bossing territory and possession. The Chiefs dominated thereafter by scoring four unanswered tries.
The Highlanders defence – an area of strength in seasons gone past – was sorely exposed on this occasion. Chiefs No 8 Tyler Aldron broke from the back of a five-metre scrum and scored without being touched.
Forwards and backs tore the Highlanders defence to shreds in the lead-up to the next two tries. A long-range attack was finished by prop Angus Ta’avao as the hosts moved into the lead. Thereafter, some sublime passing into space freed up Etene Nanai-Seturo to score on debut.
Josh Ioane slotted a penalty on the stroke of half-time to see the Highlanders trailing 19-10. Another three-pointer after the break brought the visitors within one score of the hosts.
But the Chiefs continued to come at the Highlanders, and after a sustained period on attack, their young flyhalf came up with an inspired play.
Orbyn Ledger spotted the overlap out on the left wing, and kicked for Nanai-Seturo. The execution of the kick was superb and Nanai-Seturo collected the ball to score his second and put the Chiefs firmly in charge.
The Highlanders refused to give up. Replacement flanker Shannon Frizell scored as the game moved into the final quarter. Ioane’s conversion reduced the deficit to four points.
The visitors suffered another a major blow when Tomkinson was red-carded for an illegal tackle. Stephen Donald kicked the penalty, and from there the game appeared to be the Chiefs to lose against a 14-man Highlanders side.
Ioane slotted yet another penalty to bring his side back within four points of the Chiefs. Smith scored in the 76th minute, and Ioane’s conversion took the visitors three points clear.
Chiefs – Tries: Tyler Aldron, Angus Ta’avao, Etene Nanai-Seturo (2). Conversions: Brad Weber (2). Penalty: Stephen Donald
Highlanders – Tries: Pari Pari Parkinson, Shannon Frizell, Aaron Smith. Conversions: Josh Ioane (3). Penalties: Ioane (3).
Chiefs – 15 Shaun Stevenson, 14 Bailyn Sullivan, 13 Tumua Manu, 12 Anton Lienert-Brown, 11 Etene Nanai-Seturo, 10 Orbyn Leger, 9 Brad Weber, 8 Tyler Ardron, 7 Lachlan Boshier, 6 Mitchell Brown, 5 Michael Allardice, 4 Brodie Retallick (c), 3 Angus Ta’avao, 2 Nathan Harris, 1 Atu Moli.
Subs: 16 Samisoni Taukei’aho, 17 Aidan Ross, 18 Nepo Laulala, 19 Taleni Seu, 20 Jesse Parete, 21 Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, 22 Stephen Donald, 23 Ataata Moeakiola.
Highlanders – 15 Ben Smith (co-c), 14 Matt Faddes, 13 Rob Thompson, 12 Thomas Umaga- Jensen, 11 Tevita Li, 10 Josh Ioane, 9 Kayne Hammington, 8 Luke Whitelock (co-c), 7 James Lentjes, 6 Jackson Hemopo, 5 Josh Dickson, 4 Pari Pari Parkinson, 3 Tyrel Lomax, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Ayden Johnstone.
Subs: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Daniel Lienert-Brown, 18 Siate Tokolahi, 19 Shannon Frizell, 20 Dillon Hunt, 21 Aaron Smith, 22 Bryn Gatland, 23 Patelesio Tomkinson.
Photo: Michael Bradley/Getty Images