Round 6 of Super Rugby Aotearoa concluded with the reverse of the tournament’s opening match as the Highlanders travelled to Hamilton to face off against the Chiefs. Warren Gatland’s men were 0-4 at the halfway point but found themselves building an early lead with tries through Lachlan Boshier and Anton Lienert-Brown. Rob Thompson found himself sent to the bin on 14 minutes for a high tackle and after Damian McKenzie kicked the resulting penalty for 3 points, the Chiefs took advantage of the extra man to score a 3ʳᵈ try through hooker Bradley Slater. he Highlanders finally began to muster a response after this and Marino Mikaele-Tu’u scored on the half hour mark to make the halftime score 24-7.
The Chiefs started the second half on fire and Bradley Slater crossed for his 2nd try just minutes after the restart, but things were soon to change drastically. Josh Ioane has been introduced at the break following his return from injury and a reshuffle of the back line soon resulted in Mitch Hunt breaking away out wide for a try. The Highlanders continued to claw themselves back into the game and a great example of support running by Aaron Smith saw the All Blacks halfback cross just before the hour mark, with Hunt converting to make the score 31-19. The clock appeared to be against the Highlanders, until Jona Nareki found a gap on 75 minutes and went 60 metres to score – Hunt converting – before a stupid penalty from the Chiefs pack as time expired allowed the Highlanders to kick the ball out 5m from the Chiefs’ try line. The catch and drive came from the Otago outfit and as the Chiefs committed extra defenders to hold them out, Aaron Smith took advantage of the space created to draw the only nearby defender and feed Sio Tomkinson to score under the posts and level the score, with Hunt kicking the conversion to seal a 31-33 comeback victory.
This last-gasp defeat to the Highlanders has left the Chiefs in a bad spot. They find themselves 0-5 in the competition and with their bye coming in Round 10, they have no break in which to regroup for a final push. They desperately need that break right now as they just can’t find a way to win. When you go 24-7 up, there should be no way that you collapse badly enough to lose, and yet that’s exactly what the Chiefs did.
When I look at the attacking stats, it’s no surprise that they lost. Boshier was the only player to make more than 5 metres (55 from 5 carries), while the starting wingers managed just 8 carries between them. It felt like the physicality of young lock Naitoa Ah Kuoi and control of Aaron Cruden (who was inexplicably left on the bench even as the game turned against them). But even worse was the way they handed the match to the Highlanders at the death. After Boshier won a penalty with a great jackal – one of a couple of key penalties he won in similar fashion late on – the Chefs cleared their line and set about securing the lineout with seconds left, only to be penalised for obstruction, allowing the Highlanders the possession and field position to win the game.
Next week, the Chiefs travel to a Blues team that will be looking to end a 2-game slide, before hosting the unbeaten Crusaders and travelling to a resurgent Hurricanes. Looking at that run-in, I struggle to see the Chiefs finishing with anything other than an 0-8 record.
While I don’t feel that the Chiefs deserved the victory on their 80 minute performance, things could have been very different but for a contentious disallowed try. With the score at 31-19 in the 65ᵗʰ minute, an overthrown lineout on halfway was recovered by the Chiefs and a couple of phases later Damian McKenzie crossed for a try beneath the posts. However, the try was chalked off after Mike Fraser referred to the TMO, who concluded that following the overthrown lineout, the ball went forward off Sam Cane’s knee and contacted Kaleb Trask, who was in front of him and therefore in an offside position, resulting in a Highlanders scrum on halfway.
While this was morally the right decision as had the officials picked up on it at the time, play would not have continued, but the issue comes from play continuing and the referee referring the try to the TMO. When the TMO is checking if a try can be allowed they can only look back over the last 2 phases, however there were 3 very clear rucks between the offence and the try, which means that the TMO should have awarded the try due to nothing in the final 2 phases that could merit disallowing the try.
Personally, I think that incidents like this should lead to a TMO process where the footage is actively rewound on screen so we can all clearly see how far back the footage has gone and make sure it is not taken beyond that second phase.
Back line balance
A few weeks ago, I suggested bringing in Bryn Gatland to help create a dual playmaker axis to help Mitch Hunt. While they didn’t ever do this, they went one step better this week with the return of Josh Ioane from injury.
Realising that things weren’t working well enough in the first half, Ioane was brought on at half time for Rob Thompson, prompting a reshuffle to the back line, with fullback Michael Collins filling in for Thompson at 13, Hunt dropping back to 15 and Ioane at first five-eighth. The impact was so positive and almost instant. Collins looked more dangerous at 13, where his distribution skills helped to exploit gaps in the defence, while Hunt’s extra freedom allowed him to really show of his running skills as he made breaks out wide to great effect.
With the performance in the second half, I think that the Highlanders may have hit on their ideal back line for the coming games. Aaron Smith is in wonderful form and is an easy pick at 9. Ioane will only get better at 10 the more he plays there following his injury. Sio Tomkinson is solid and reliable at 12, while Collins should remain at 13. Hunt should play at 15 t create the dual playmaker axis with Ioane, while the wings should be Jona Nareki – who made a key impact off the bench and has been one of the more consistent wingers – and (assuming Nehe Milner-Skudder is not fit) Josh McKay, who looked assured at 14 in this match and put some pressure on the defence with his impressive pace.