Highlanders feeling early pressure
Jeff Wilson will write weekly for the Sunday Star-Times on Super Rugby this season. The former All Blacks star turned media commentator kicks off by turning the heat up on his old team, the Highlanders.
A cracking Super Rugby opener in Dunedin told me a lot more about the Chiefs than it did the Highlanders.
It told me that not only are the Chiefs a brilliant counter-attacking side, but they're a superb defensive unit. It also proved that the defending champions have the most complete coaching staff in the competition.
The mark of a great organisation is the ability to fast-track players to a higher level. Hooker Rhys Marshall has yet to play NPC rugby, Gareth Anscombe had never played a Super Rugby game at fullback, same with Tim Nanai-Williams at centre, and Bundee Aki was on debut.
Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph talked about needing things to go your way, and on Friday night things didn't go their way. Injuries have put them under pressure from week one, and now Nasi Manu is out for an extended period.
You live and die by your decision-makers and their lack of direction when the pressure came on late was noticeable. They also have to find a combination in the midfield. The selection of Ma'a Nonu and Phil Burleigh didn't work defensively. And their forwards need to be better at the breakdown.
The Highlanders are in a bit of a catch-22 situation. They've got that roofed stadium with ideal conditions every home game. The danger is that opposition teams get excited about playing there, want to play footy, and the game can get fast and loose.
In this case fast and loose suited the Chiefs more than it suited the Highlanders. With instinctive players like Nanai-Williams, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Aki and Liam Messam, the space and time to counter-attack was the difference between the two teams.
The Chiefs had limited possession but it was all about what they did with it.
Should the Highlanders be concerned? Maybe.
Can Brad Thorn and Andrew Hore keep up with fast and loose? Can they tighten up and close out games? Do they have the loose forward depth they now need?
The Chiefs are sitting a lot more comfortably.
This was a win for the Chiefs' coaching staff, as much as for those players who took their chances so well.
Another significant difference was the impact of the reserves. When the Chiefs subs came on they got better. It was seamless.
When a game's fast and loose it's difficult to change. The Highlanders probably needed to tighten up at the business end, get direct, and try to wear teams down. But they tried to play expansive, made an error, and paid for it.
That comes down to leadership. You live and die at this level by your first five.
Both teams will have gathered valuable information about where they're at. The Highlanders have concerns, but the Chiefs will be well satisfied.
The Chiefs' defence could be the best in the competition. They're doing what the Hurricanes did last year. Defend, defend, get turnovers, then go 60m the other way.
Wayne Smith is a master of coaching counter-attack and this side, when they regain possession, can score from anywhere. The strengths of the Crusaders when he was there were defence and counter-attack. Same with the All Blacks.
The Highlanders, though, are not without hope. With Hore, Thorn and Slade absent, you can understand why they weren't as direct as they might have been.
It's worth pondering what the Crusaders would have made of the opening game. A lot has been talked about the New Zealand conference being very good, and this confirmed it.
The Highlanders and Chiefs are both going to get better, with so many quality players to come back into the mix.
The Crusaders have talked about rebranding their game, and becoming more of an attacking force. With what they saw in Dunedin they may have to be.
They open with the Blues on Friday in Auckland, and it shapes as the perfect opportunity to get their heads round what they need to do to win.
In this age of professionalism there's no room for excuses. The only franchise that has the benefit of time is the Blues. But even they live in an environment of expectation.
NORTH V SOUTH
There's a lot of talk around about the need for a north-south clash to expand Super Rugby. But there shouldn't be.
First, there's no window for it to be played, second, what benefit is there to playing the game, and, if we want to see the best of the two hemispheres playing, we can, it's called test rugby.
All we would end up with is a game like rugby league's world club challenge which no-one cares about.
It's interesting that the revived interest has come from up north. It's like the Heineken Cup has lost some of its purpose and this is seen as a way to create interest, as well as revenue.
If you look at the product we saw in Friday's Super Rugby opener in Dunedin, and compare it with what the Six Nations is producing, I know which one I'd rather watch.
It seems like it's something the northern hemisphere has got more to gain from than us.
Sunday Star Times