Chiefs go top as Highlanders can't hold on
Not bad for a team battling away for rhythm and form. With their 21-19 win over the Highlanders in Hamilton tonight, the Chiefs are now two wins from two, away to the perfect start as they chase the defining championship threepeat.
But for the second straight week, the back-to-back Super Rugby champs were pushed to the limit, this time by a Highlanders outfit who demonstrated palpably that they're the real deal in 2014, bereft of the big names, but not the ticker and tenacity needed to be competitive at this level.
Through the opening fortnight they have symbolised the maxim that good teams know how to win, even when they're playing badly.
They have spent vast segments of their 160 minutes of this season under the cosh, yet it's they who wear the smiles at matches' end.
The Chiefs spent most of the first half on defence, and were probably fortunate to trail just 16-7 at the break. But after halftime they stepped up their game, managed to hold on to some possession, and were able to scramble home on the back of tries to Liam Messam and Charlie Ngatai.
The Highlanders had their chances late, but committed untimely errors that allowed the Chiefs to spend the key final minutes hot on attack and able to close out their second straight win.
The Chiefs forwards stuck to their task well, Pauliasi Manu enjoying his return to the No 1 jersey, Matt Symons making a promising debut in the second row and Liam Messam thriving in his shift to No 8.
Tawera Kerr-Barlow enjoyed his battle with All Black Aaron Smith at halfback, Tim Nanai-Williams showed quality early, Aaron Cruden again provided the touches of class and Asaeli Tikoirotumu had a powerful game out wide.
Joe Wheeler was the standout Highlander, the lock throwing himself all over the place all night, while John Hardie and Gareth Evans were effective in the loose, Lima Sopoaga had a perfect night with the boot and Malakai Fekitioa was equally as effective on the wing as he was at centre last week.
Chiefs coach Dave Rennie was happy to head into the bye as the only unbeaten side in the conference, but far from content with the discipline of his team.
"Far too many penalties, far too much time without possession, when we got our hands on it we ran over the sideline three times I think in the first half so we just struggled to get going," Rennie said.
Rennie blasted his players, saying many of the penalties had been the result of a "lack of intelligence".
Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph was "proud of the guys," adding: "We created a lot of rugby, a lot of scoring opportunities and we capitalised on most of them. But the most important ones we didn't and the game slipped out of our hands."
It had been a quality first 40 minutes from the Highlanders that earned them a surprise nine-point (16-7) halftime lead. There was a try apiece - Nanai-Williams' early strike for the Chiefs off some sizzling handling, answered by Hardie's 32nd minute touchdown off a very impressive lineout drive from 10 metres out.
The Chiefs struck first in the second spell with a seven-pointer six minutes in when Messam drove over low, the beneficiary of a bustling run from halfback Kerr-Barlow and some efficient work from the home forwards who took over once the red zone was breached.
Sopoaga chewed back three points just past the quarter-hour mark of the second spell, but for the next 15 minutes it was the Highlanders' defence that held sway as they repelled a succession of likely Chiefs attacks with desperation and desire.
But something had to give, and it did round the 68th minute when a thunderous break by replacement loose forward Liam Squire - another of the standout Makos getting a shot at Super Rugby this year - provided the opening for an excellent Charlie Ngatai try that put the Chiefs in front, 21-19.
Off the back of Squire's circuitous run up the middle, Cruden seized the moment beautifully with a crosskick Tikoirotuma was able to gather, then flick the assist infield to Ngatai for the power finish.
That ended up the final score, though an absorbing contest had several more twists and turns before the Chiefs gratefully closed out the win, to head into the bye with a decided spring in their step.
Chiefs: 21 (Tim Nanai-Williams, Liam Messam, Charlie Ngatai tries; Aaron Cruden 3
Highlanders: 19 (John Hardie try; Lima Sopoaga conversion, 4 penalty goals).
Halftime: 16-7 Highlanders.
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