Highlanders edge Chiefs in Dunedin
REPORT: The Highlanders edged the Chiefs 25-15 in Dunedin on Saturday and will travel to Australia for their quarterfinal.
This match had all the drama you could want from a rugby match - seesawing scoring, high intensity for 80 minutes, unpredictability, courage, skill and controversy, and it produced a try to dream of. And it chopped and changed the immediate future of all four New Zealand teams qualified for the quarterfinals.
It was hard to digest all that happened. It was such a special match. It was no surprise that spectator noise continued throughout, at times increasing, never diminishing.
The Highlanders did themselves favours when they beat the Chiefs 25-15 in their Dunedin home, the Forsyth Barr Stadium with its lively horde of scarfies packed into the Zoo..
They also did the Hurricanes a favour, ensuring that they are the New Zealand Conference winners.
They did the Chiefs no favours, sending them over the Indian Ocean to face the Stormers at Newlands.
That is a summary of the outcome of the high drama
The Chiefs kicked off and a few minutes later the final whistle went, or so it seemed as this engrossing match unfolded.
Early on Lima Sopoaga missed an eminently kickable penalty and in no time Damian McKenzie, who had little room to move in this intense match, had a run. Aaron Cruden dinked a clever chip which Anton Lienert-Brown gathered and the Chiefs were bashing at the line. There was sturdy wing Toni Pulu in the midst of the forwards and he it was who scored the try which McKenzie converted to give the Chiefs a 7-0 lead after 8 minutes. At half-time they were still in the lead in a half in which there was lots and lots of activity, lots of ebb and flow, but few points.
A penalty to the Highlanders and Sopoaga kicked a long penalty for a line-out five metres from the Chiefs' line but tall (2,06m) Dominic Bird of the Chiefs stole the ball.
A break by Waisake Naholo set the Highlanders attacking, left and then right where Luke Whitelock charged at the line near the posts. At this point a long period of TMO inspection ensured - first looking for foul play, where there was none, and then looking for a try before deciding there was none.
The Highlanders had a five-metre scrum and then a five-metre line-out. They threw deep into the line-out and immediately went left where right wing Naholo cut clean through for a try. A try? That was too simple. Instead there was TMO inspection again and the upshot was a penalty against Malakai Fekitoa for obstruction on Cruden to keep the gap open for Naholo. Penalty to the relieved Chiefs.
Just to remind us that there was a lot riding of the match and lots of tension as a result, there were at this stage outbursts of harmless aggression, the sort of push and shove that happen\s in preschool playgrounds.
When the Chiefs tried to run out of their own 22, they knocked on and the Highlanders had another chance to bash. But the defence held against a many-phased attack. From a five-metre line-out the Highlanders went wide and Fekitoa was close. Then Ben Smith broke and beat two and when he was tackled by Tawera Kerr-Barlow he got the ball to Naholo who dived in an astonishing way for the corner as Cruden and McKenzie tackled him. Naholo's boy was curved over the plane of touch as with great control he touched the ball down just over the line, just in from touch-in-goal. It was a feat.
More aggressive posturing followed but the score was 7-5 after minutes.
From a kick by Aaron Smith, James Lowe caught a mark, tapped and ran from 10 metres inside his 22 to the Highlanders' 10-metre line where he gave to Cruden who immediately gave to flying prop Kane Hayes. Hayes was tackled from behind by James Lentjes
In the second half Naholo tackled McKenzie in the air and McKenzie goaled the penalty. 10-5 after 42 minutes. Three minutes later Sam Cane was offside and Sopoaga goaled. 10-8.
The Chiefs attacked down the right and Cruden kicked a high diagonal to the left but, quite brilliantly, Ben Smith jumped higher to catch the ball and save the situation.
The Chiefs spent a long time on the attack, which included phases and two five-metre line-outs, but the Highlanders' defence was tough.
Then, on 53 minutes, at a tackle/ruck flank Tom Saunders was yellowcarded for a tip tackle on Ben Smith, possibly lucky not to be recarded.
When he came back onto the field the Highlanders were in the lead at 18-10. It was a turning point in the match.
First Sopoagakicked a penalty and the Highlanders went into the lead. 11-10 after 56 minutes.
Then came a wonderful try.
The Chiefs kicked high down towards the Highlanders' 22 where Sopoaga caught the ball and passed to his left. They went right and then left again where Ben Smith broke. He gave to Dan Pryor who gave to Matt Faddes and they moved with increasing speed down the left. Faddes gave to Ben Smith who beat one and gave to Pryor and, in the clear, the flank raced to score a try far out on the left which Sopoaga converted and the Highlanders led 18-10, a decisive lead.
Cane ran brilliantly down the midfield, straight at the posts and the Chiefs attacked left, then right where a looped pass killed off a double overlap but they kept possession. McKenzie sent a skip pass out to Cane who gave to Lachlan Boshier, who scored in the right corner. 18-15 with 12 minutes to play.
The Highlanders attacked. Faddes dived for the line as he was tackled. The ball came loose and Sopoaga picked up to go over. The TMO again inspected the incident and the upshot was a try to Sopoaga, which he converted to make the score 25-15 with six minutes left.
The Chiefs were attacking and about five metres from the line when Naholo intercepted. But before he got possession of the ball he knocked it away and was sent to the sin bin.
Man of the Match: Pick a Smith, either Smith and you would be making sense. We have picked Ben Smith for his attack and defence, such a skilful and such a committed player.
Tries: Naholo, Pryor, Sopoaga
Cons: Sopoaga 2
Pens: Sopoaga 2
Tries: Pulu, Boshier
Yellow cards: Tom Sanders (Chiefs, 54 - dangerous play, lifting the player), Waisake Naholo (Highlanders, 78 - cynical play, deliberate knock down)
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith (captain), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Matt Faddes, 12 Malakai Fekitoa, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 James Lentjes, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Alex Ainley, 4 Tom Franklin, 3 Siosuia Halanukonuka, 2 Ash Dixon, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown.
Replacements: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Aki Seiuli, 18 Josh Hohneck, 19 Mark Reddish, 20 Liam Squire, 21 Dan Pryor, 22 Te Aihe Toma, 23 Fletcher Smith.
Chiefs: 15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Toni Pulu, 13 Seta Tamanivalu, 12 Anton Lienert-Brown, 11 James Lowe, 10 Aaron Cruden (co-captain), 9 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 8 Liam Messam, 7 Sam Cane (co-captain), 6 Tom Sanders, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Dominic Bird, 3 Atu Moli, 2 Nathan Harris, 1 Kane Hames.
Replacements: 16 Hika Elliot, 17 Siegfried Fisi'ihoi, 18 Hiroshi Yamashita, 19 Taleni Seu, 20 Lachlan Boshier, 21 Brad Weber, 22 Stephen Donald, 23 Sam McNicol.
Referee: Glen Jackson (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Nick Briant (New Zealand), Jamie Nutbrown (New Zealand)
TMO: Chris Wratt (New Zealand)