Super Rugby Aotearoa: Highlanders v Chiefs

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Highlanders v Chiefs

On 14ᵗʰ March 2020, the Super Rugby season came to a premature end due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Today, with New Zealand having gone 3 weeks without any coronavirus cases, rugby returned in New Zealand with Super Rugby Aotearoa, a 10-week round-robin tournament between the 5 New Zealand Super Rugby franchises.

The opening match of the tournament was at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin and saw the Highlanders take on Warren Gatland’s Chiefs. The Highlanders had been struggling in Super Rugby before the season was ended, with just 1 win and 1 draw from 6 matches, but found themselves leading the Chiefs (who had 4 wins before the tournament was stopped) 22-16 at half time, despite having Vilimoni Koroi in the bin. Anton Lienert-Brown crossed for a try late on and with just a couple of minutes left, Damian McKenzie knocked over a drop goal that looked to have won the game for the Chiefs, only for replacement fullback Bryn Gatland – who was not even in the initial 23 – to hand his father an opening day loss with a drop goal from about 35 metres out with just a minute left on the clock to win the game for the Highlanders, 28-27.

Breaking down the breakdown

One of the big changes for Super Rugby Aotearoa has been the promise of an increased focus on the breakdown from officials, with a number of existing laws finally being enforced (players entering through the gate, tacklers having to roll away, the tackled player being allowed one movement before placing the ball, players having to retreat beyond the hindmost foot to be onside) and one slight amendment in the need for the jackal to be clearly trying to lift the ball, rather than just staying in place.

In this first match, it was very clear that the focus is on the breakdown, but the teams still have some way to go to adapt to the impact it will have on games. The penalty count was one of the highest that I’ve ever seen, with most coming from the breakdown (side entry/holding on after being tackled) or offsides. While some people may feel that the amount of whistle blowing harms the game, it will improve as players get used to the way that the game is now being refereed. What I did notice though was how much safer the breakdowns looked and felt on the whole.

With support men having to come through the gate, it was giving the jackal the extra moment to get on the ball, while the necessity for the jackal to support their weight then lift the ball to earn the turnover meant that they were not staying super low to the ground and were able to be cleared out without players having to charge in recklessly. It’s early days, but I look forward to seeing how this focus changes the game.

Not-so-secret weapon

The high penalty count in the game probably played into the Highlanders’ hands, as it allowed them to repeatedly g to their major weapon: the lineout and the driving maul. The Chiefs had no answer for it – being unable to disrupt the lineout and already finding themselves pushed back a metre or more before they were even bound in to push back against the maul. Of the 3 tries they scored in the first half, the catch and drive played a key role in 2 of them, with Ash Dixon being driven over for the opening try, while it also died in defenders to create a big enough blind side for the Highlanders to take advantage of for Marino Mikaele-Tu’u score while a man down.

It wasn’t just their own lineouts where they profited, though. The Chiefs struggled with their rhythm due to referee Paul Williams making them get in place early and the early loss of Mitchell Brown, but it was accentuated by the efforts of the Highlanders pack to disrupt the ball, leaving it very rare that Brad Weber was getting clean ball off the top.

Against stronger packs they may not always have it their own way, but to have such a potent weapon that can benefit from a high penalty count – very likely in these early weeks – could give the Highlanders an advantage in these early weeks.

Change of scenery

New Zealand are in an enviable position of having 3 fantastic scrum halves in Aaron Smith, TJ Perenara and Brad Weber, who could all walk into most starting lineups. But there is one player who appears to have dropped down in consideration over the last couple of seasons: Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi.

Tahuriorangi was already sharing to look like the next man up when the British and Irish Lions came to town 3 years ago, and was soon 3ʳᵈ choice for the All Blacks. However the form of his more experienced clubmate, Brad Weber, over recent seasons saw him drop to second string for the Chiefs and miss out on the All Blacks squad for the Rugby World Cup. Aged 25, this is the time you would want to be pushing for the starting spot in the national team, but his way looks blocked in the near future with Weber and Perenara in their late 20s and Aaron Smith having a few more seasons in him at 31. He’s not going to be forcing his way in anytime soon as Weber’s backup and if he harbours any hopes of an international career anytime soon, he should be looking to see if he can move to the Blues or Crusaders, where he could be a first string player and directly compete against his rivals for the All Black squad.


“You’re playing and you think everything is going fine. Then one thing goes wrong. And then another. And another. You try to fight back, but the harder you fight, the deeper you sink. Until you can’t move… you can’t breathe… because you’re in over your head. Like quicksand.”

The above quite is one of my favourites from the movie The Replacements and said by Keanu Reeves’ character, Quarterback Shane Falco. Having watched the game this morning, I can’t help feel that Chiefs number 8 Pita Gus Sowakula might know what Falco meant by this.

The Fijian is clearly a talented player, but everything he seemed to try in this game was the wrong decision. He gave away a number of penalties for a range of offences, including making multiple movements after being tackled without releasing the ball and tackling a player before they had the ball. He made a great break later in the first half, but then in an attempt to keep the ball alive, he threw an offload to nobody, resulting in the ball being turned over. And then finally, when the Chiefs chose to convert a late penalty into a scrum inside the Highlanders 22 while a man up, he failed to control the ball at the base of the scrum, leading to the chance being wasted.

It won’t be easy, but Sowakula needs to get this game out of his head as soon as possible and move his focus onto facing the Blues on Saturday. He just needs to be careful that he doesn’t try to push things too hard, or he may find himself in quicksand.

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Eyes On: Chiefs v British and Irish Lions

In the final game before the first Test against the All Blacks, the Lions built on Saturday’s win against the Maori All Blacks with a convincing 6-34 win against an under-strength Chiefs side in Hamilton to earn their first midweek win of the tour. This close to the first Test, it is unlikely that many (if any) of these players will feature on Saturday, however it is possible that some players performances in this game may have brought them into contention for later Test matches.

For the last time before the Test series begins, here are my thoughts on the latest game of the tour. This is something that I have written Wednesday on my lunch break and after work (I wasn’t able to watch the game until Tuesday night), so any speculation regarding the 23 selected for the first Test will be a bit outdated by the time this goes up.


Peaking at the right time

I think it’s fair to say that this was the Lions’ best performance on tour so far. Against the Maoris, the Lions took advantage of the poor handling conditions to dominate the game through a dominant pack and a super-effective defence. On Tuesday, the weather conditions allowed more expansive handling, and the Lions added an expansive attack to the strong defence.

Barring a couple of penalties – including Joe Marler’s stupid late tackle – and a few late breaks when the Chiefs started throwing the ball around late in the game, there was very little to trouble the Lions in defence, who forced Stephen Donald to play deep behind the gain line much like Damian McKenzie had to at the weekend.

The forwards proved their might with a penalty try from a driving maul and were also able to win a scrum penalty with Jared Payne deputising at flanker while Marler was in the sin bin. I also really liked the gamesmanship of the forwards making so much noise at the opposition line out that it was hard for the Chiefs to communicate their calls.

The attacking play was probably the best it has been all tour, with Jack Nowell’s second try by far the best try to be scored in all of the games. Jared Payne’s try off the back of Liam Williams’ incisive run – he looked so much better at fullback – was a great show of how dangerous the tourists can be. However they still butchered chances, Williams dropping a Biggar pass 5 metres out in the first half and Tommy Seymour’s pass to Jared Payne’s knees following a great break near the end, so there is still improvement needed for the Tests.

Winging it

I have mentioned previously how there have been no standout performances from the Lions wingers so far this tour. Tuesday’s game was certainly an exception. Jack Nowell has taken a bit of flak from fans and pundits on this tour, but his performance against the Chiefs was probably the best of any Lions winger on this tour! It felt as if the attacking style in this game was different and he was given the freedom to play his natural game. He was more than happy to come off his wing and frequently beat the first man or mad ground in the tackle. His 2 tries in this game have made him the joint top try scorer – level with penalty tries – for the Lions on this tour. I think this performance has probably been too late for a place in the first Test, but he may have just put his hand up for later weeks.

On the left wing, Elliot Daly was up for it from the first second. He started with a thumping tackle directly from the kickoff and was a menace down the left flank all through the 60 minutes he was on the field. He had a couple of good breaks and was heavily involved in the build-up to Nowell’s second try. The fact that he was one of the few players Gatland substituted suggests to me that he will feature in the Test 23, however the fact that Gatland was willing to bring him back on when Jared Payne was injured makes me think that he will be in the bench on Saturday rather than the starting XV.

Liam Williams had a great game at fullback. He did not have too much to do defensively, but what he did was done well. In attack he ran some great attacking lines and his play to set up Jared Payne’s try was sublime. Had he been given more minutes at 15 during this tour, I could have imagined him competing for the Test 15 position, however I feel that playing the full 80 minutes in this game means that for the first Test he will either be left out or make the bench.

Making up the numbers

There was a lot of controversy at the weekend when Warren Gatland called up 6 players from Wales and Scotland to make up the numbers for the remaining midweek games. While I was against the decision to bring them in, I was very surprised and disappointed to see that Allan Dell was the only one to make it onto the pitch – and even that was only as a prop was needed during Marler’s sin bin. It’s great to see substitutes not just being trotted on at prearranged times but I feel for the lads who have probably questioned whether they deserve to be there and have now basically been shown they will only make it on the pitch as a last resort. What surprised me the most was that the coaches decided to bring Elliot Daly back on for the last few minutes to replace the injured Jared Payne as opposed to bringing on Finn Russell for his Lions debut. Hopefully they’ll get a chance to make it on the pitch against the Hurricanes next week.


The Test Squad

From what I have seen over recent weeks, this is the squad that I expect Warren Gatland to pick for Saturday’s first Test. Talk from New Zealand suggests that players like Owen Farrell and Sam Warburton will be fit for selection, so I have based this on the assumption everyone is available.

  1. Mako Vunipola
  2. Jamie George
  3. Tadhg Furlong
  4. Maro Itoje
  5. George Kruis
  6. Sam Warburton
  7. Sean O’Brien
  8. Taulupe Faletau
  9. Conor Murray
  10. Owen Farrell
  11. George North
  12. Ben Te’o
  13. Jonathan Davies
  14. Anthony Watson
  15. Leigh Halfpenny
  16. Ken Owens
  17. Jack McGrath
  18. Kyle Sinckler
  19. Alun Wyn Jones
  20. Peter O’Mahony
  21. Rhys Webb
  22. Johnny Sexton
  23. Elliot Daly


What were your thoughts on the game? Do you think I missed anything? What would your squad be for the first Test? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge