Chiefs dish up an early lesson for Southern men
Stand-in skipper Hosea Gear was looking on the bright side of a harsh reality check for his Highlanders in their Super Rugby season opener.
Missing some fairly heavyweight performers - including All Blacks Andrew Hore, Brad Thorn and Colin Slade - the Highlanders faded over the final quarter to be well beaten 41-27 by a very impressive Chiefs outfit.
The Highlanders had been far from horrible in an entertaining encounter in front of nearly 20,000 fans under the roof of Forsyth Barr Stadium. They constructed three quality tries and were right in the contest as it headed into the final quarter.
But they had no answer to the Chiefs over the run home and paid the price for gifting too many counter-attack opportunities to the defending champions who are becoming the best in the business at striking from turnover.
Some costly errors from some of the squad's less experienced performers also drew some fairly harsh words afterwards from a rueful Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph.
"The biggest disappointment for me is the guys with less experience who come on to a big game of football and have to be able to maintain their composure so we can get back into the game," he said.
"You can't fault their endeavour or their passion but it's costly. You're playing against quality teams and with extremely good refereeing, so we're going to have to be sharper there."
Gear, who scored an exceptional individual try late in the first half, felt his new-look team would be much the better for a game that reverses the fortunes of this time last year, when the Highlanders toppled the Chiefs in their Hamilton opener.
"They're the defending champions and you can't really give them a sniff," said the 28-year-old All Black wing.
"As soon as we did we saw what happened - they scored tries from anywhere pretty much. I was quite pleased the way our boys pulled through that initially.
"We wanted to challenge them, they're the champions, and it was a good game to measure ourselves against the best. They played really well, they deserved their win in the end and we'll learn the lessons from it."
All is far from woe for the Highlanders, who hinted at their firepower. They just need to tighten things up on occasions and maybe play the percentages a little when things get edgy.
They also need to get a little more impact from their pack who were off-key at set piece time and lacked the physical presence that is their coach's minimum requirement.
A serious foot injury to Nasi Manu won't help the cause, with the big No 8 tweeting that's he's out for at least eight weeks with what appears to be ligament damage. That's a big blow to a side somewhat underpowered in its loose trio, with Otago youngster T J Ioane a possibility for a call-up.
The imminent returns of Hore and Thorn after the bye week will help, but it may be that it's Slade's organisational abilities at first five that are more urgently required. He, too, could be back as early as the March 9 clash against the Cheetahs in Invercargill.
The Highlanders will also hope to get more out of star signing Ma'a Nonu as he settles into his new team.
"It's still early days," said Gear.
"It's about making sure we do learn the lessons and make sure we go back to the drawing board and focus on what let us down and what we need to do to get better."
Sunday Star Times