Rugby: Defending champs dispatch Chiefs

By Kris Shannon

Highlanders 25 Chiefs 15
Waisake Naholo's acrobatic finish produced the Highlanders' opening try. Photo / Getty
Waisake Naholo's acrobatic finish produced the Highlanders' opening try. Photo / Getty

A wild night and a conference turned upside down ended with a familiar outcome - the Highlanders rounding into title-winning form at the right time of the campaign.

The defending champions tonight showed they were more than ready to mount a serious defence of their crown, tipping over the Chiefs after a breathless 80 minutes at Forsyth Barr Stadium.

Last year's title challenge began with a win over the same opponents in the same building and, based on the way they handled the Chiefs, another looks likely to begin. They will have to head to Canberra next week - after the Hurricanes crushed the Crusaders earlier in the night to clinch the conference - but that task will provide no fear after thriving in foreign climes in last year's playoffs.

And, given their efforts in dispatching the Chiefs, who must now travel to the Republic and face the Stormers, why would the Highlanders be bowed in the face of any test? Jamie Joseph's men won this one in the style they use to trump so many opponents, riding a physical and incessant effort from their forward pack and enjoying moments of true brilliance from their backline.

The former was key in controlling the match, as only the Chiefs' determination without the ball kept their side close. Somehow, Waisake Naholo's acrobatic finish was the Highlanders' sole reward from a commanding first half, as a combination of good defence, bad luck and lost opportunities conspired to leave them trailing for much of the opening hour.

A few untimely errors from the Chiefs helped but the ascendancy the Highlanders enjoyed was entirely of their own making, kicking less than in recent meetings with between the teams and running relentlessly at the Chiefs' tacklers.

Most of those tackles were made, though, as the Chiefs barely survived a series of significant tests. Twice in the first half it looked like they were undone and twice the TMO denied the Highlanders, adding to the feeling of inevitability that the home side would find a way through.

While Naholo eventually did, the Chiefs did show in flashes they were ready to punish their opponent's profligacy. Toni Pulu's early try was the result of some clever strategic kicking from Aaron Cruden, while one James Lowe-led break down the left illustrated the danger the visitors' posed on the counter.

Those thrusts would have been too rare for Dave Rennie's liking but they did add to a frenetic pace, a speed that, naturally, produced a fair few mistakes, interspersed with breath-taking skill from both sides.

But, after the break, more and more were being produced by players wearing a blue jersey. Ben Smith was particularly influential and, while the Chiefs defence again showed its mettle, ill-discipline eventually counted against them at the key moment.

First it was the sin-binning of Tom Sanders and then a succession of infringements, allowing the home side to finally hit the front as Dan Pryor finished a scintillating long-range break.

The lead was more than deserved and left the Chiefs needing to show greater attacking intent in the final quarter, a mentality that quickly arrived to set up a grandstand finish, but one that was too often absent as the Highlanders defeated Rennie's side for the sixth straight meeting.

Highlanders 25 (W. Naholo, D. Pryor, L. Sopoaga tries; L. Sopoaga 2 pens, 2 cons)
Chiefs 15 (T. Pulu, L. Boshier tries; D. McKenzie con, pen)
Halftime: 5-7

- NZ Herald

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