Chiefs dig deep to down Highlanders
March 23, 2013
The Highlanders' Liam Coltman was one of many players to toil hard against the Chiefs for no reward © Getty Images
It is said that rugby is a game of inches: accumulate enough of those inches going forward with ball in hand, and it's more than likely that you'll get the desired result; and by that logic, the Highlanders should have walked out of Waikato Stadium as comfortable winners on Friday night.
Ahead in every key facet of the game, albeit for half the contest, including running metres, possession and territory, they dominated a weary Chiefs outfit on tired legs after a two-week tour of South Africa. But as Jamie Joseph's men would soon learn, some things are just as crucial to winning that can't be measured: it's what the Chiefs like to call "mana"; the will and determination they showed for 80 minutes, after which they extended their lead at the top of the New Zealand conference to six points with the 19-7 win.
With a meagre 38 percent of possession in the first half, the Chiefs were forced to make 47 more tackles (83) and defend in their 22 for nine minutes as they were pegged back by seven penalties. Having endured an unrelenting Highlanders assault for 40 minutes, the half-time oranges would have been that little bit sweeter knowing they escaped with a six-point lead.
"It was pretty gutsy, we played a lot of the game without the ball," Chiefs coach Dave Rennie said. "We hung in there. The boys were pretty desperate defensively. The boys are pretty knackered; a couple of them said they were pretty knackered going into the game so it was pretty gutsy."
The Highlanders did all that was asked of them, as Joseph had expected that his side would outlast their jet-lagged opponents and devised a fast-paced game plan accordingly."The Highlanders had a plan to play quick and run us around, and they did," Rennie said. But the Chiefs expended every last ounce of energy to go the extra mile and diffuse numerous raids.
A well-timed tackle denied Jason Emery a crucial try, while one was created for Tim Nanai-Williams after Josh Bekhuis had the ball jolted from his grasp. After that, a leaping charge down had the Highlanders pinned on their line, and one last collective effort to counter-ruck for a turnover ended the game and the Highlanders' chance of a bonus point.
Rennie will sleep easier knowing his troops have taken it upon themselves to do the little things required to ensure a bigger goal is achieved later in the season. And now he'll start contemplating where best to use fit-again Richard Kahui in his backline. Returning from a lengthy shoulder injury, the IRB Rugby World Cup-winning All Blacks star has the "potential to start" against the Blues in Tauranga next week, when the Chiefs must combat the powerful midfield of Francis Saili and Rene Ranger.
The Chiefs showed tenacity and respect for their tryline to defeat the Highlanders (vision available only in Australia)%]
"With Richard coming on - he's twice the size of our other backs - so there was a bit of go-forward and we got things going on around him," Rennie said. "It's pretty exciting to have him back."
Joseph, meanwhile, mulls a winless record after four games this season, knowing the job only gets tougher when the Highlanders host Queensland Reds before heading to Eden Park a week later. A hamstring injury to All Blacks prop Tony Woodcock only added to the growing list of concerns.
Andrew Hore, injured during the previous loss to the Hurricanes, was sorely missed at the lineout as the Chiefs stole possession on four occasions, and fly-half Colin Slade didn't help his side's chances by missing all three penalty shots at goal. Still, Joseph felt that "bounce of the ball" could have benefited his side a little more than it did.
"I saw a gallant effort from our side," Joseph said. "I didn't see a lot of luck go our way. I thought we put a lot of pressure on that team but we weren't able to convert that into points. There were just a lot of decisions that just didn't go our way. I guess if we go the decisions that didn't go our way, things would have been different."
The Highlanders face an arduous task to turning the season around, but the players believe it is not out of their reach just yet. "Is this the end of our season," Joseph said. "Of course not. There's a lot of integrity in our team."