Rugby: Champs topple chief challengers

By Kris Shannon

Chiefs 13 Highlanders 26
Waisake Naholo enjoyed a successful return to Super Rugby. Photo / Getty
Waisake Naholo enjoyed a successful return to Super Rugby. Photo / Getty

The defending champions aren't quite ready to relinquish their crown.

Facing the side many are tipping to take the Super Rugby title, the Highlanders reminded everyone just why they claimed last year's competition, shining in all facets to shock the Chiefs.

The reigning champs were impressive in almost everything they did in Hamilton, clinical in attack and resolute in defence to deal the Chiefs their first defeat since the second week of the season.

Waisake Naholo excelled in his return from injury, grabbing two tries and showing no indication it was his first game since February. That would have pleased the three All Blacks selectors watching from the stands and smiles must have also resulted from some of the play of Damian McKenzie and Charlie Ngatai.

But the performance of that pair was hardly consolation in a loss that dropped the Chiefs from the top of the table all the way down to fifth. And while that standing was a quirk of the conference system, Dave Rennie's men rarely played like leaders.

They were ill-disciplined - seeing two men sent to the sin bin - and turned over the ball far too often, giving the Highlanders a huge helping hand as the southern side led throughout. Like almost every side, their defence was unable to cope with the sheer number of game-breakers the Chiefs boasted among both backs and forwards, but the visitors restricted their opponents to two tries for one main reason.

It was a dry night at FMG Stadium but the hosts treated the ball as if it were soaking wet, dropping straightforward passes and coughing up possession when under no pressure. Whenever the Highlanders' defensive line was punctured, or whenever the Chiefs looked set to take a stranglehold on the game, the result was the same - ball went to ground.

The spills even infected the Chiefs' most effective players, with McKenzie and Ngatai among the many to commit errors that halted the Chiefs' charge. And the Highlanders were more than happy to take advantage by kicking the ball back to the home side with great regularity.

Jamie Joseph had clearly instructed his team to test the Chiefs' aerial ability and his charges dutifully followed that plan in the opening spell, showing an unerring accuracy that created contested kicks and saw a few high balls bobbled.

All the kicking meant the first half featured much less of the running rugby both teams' backlines indicated would be on the cards, creating a spectacle that was no less compelling but one with fewer chances in the vicinity of either try line.

Owing to a superior skillset, the Highlanders were much more clinical when they did earn opportunities, with Dan Lienert-Brown's opening try coming quickly after an expansive move down the right sideline and, on the other side of the break, Naholo steamrolling McKenzie after a big bust by Patrick Osborne down the opposite flank.

The latter try briefly shocked the Chiefs to life, unleashing a brilliant backline move that saw Aaron Cruden cross in the corner. But the Highlanders defence recovered well and ensured all the Chiefs' industry resulted in yet more turnovers, allowing Naholo to bag a brace and allowing the visitors to finish well and truly on top.

Chiefs 13 (A. Cruden, S. Vaka tries; A. Cruden pen)
Highlanders 26 (D. Lienert-Brown, W. Naholo 2 tries; L. Sopoaga 3 pens, M. Banks con)
Halftime: 3-13

- NZ Herald

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