Jet-lagged Chiefs unconvincing but victorious
MARC HINTON AT WAIKATO STADIUM
The drought is over, but not the disquiet, as the Chiefs produced another two-paced performance to make heavier work of one of Super Rugby's lightweights than their pedigree suggests they should have.
This week it was the start that was the good bit for the heavyweights from Hamilton, and the rest was probably best forgotten, as errors and ill-discipline dogged the home team for the last 60 minutes against the game but limited Melbourne Rebels.
Coach Dave Rennie will be happy to bank his first victory in a month, 22-16, after the back-to-back champions ended a three-game winless streak - the longest under his stewardship - with an unconvincing result against a gritty Rebels outfit.
But this was a performance that had jet-lag written all over it. It was listless. It was restless. It was at times gormless. Not what we've come to expect, and certainly not what Rennie and his coaching crew demand of them.
After that shock defeat in Perth and the consecutive escape-act draws in South Africa, this was at least the result the Chiefs wanted, if nowhere near the performance.
Perhaps it was expecting too much to ask otherwise. That trip saps the legs and energy. And for the first time since 2008, neither Aaron Cruden nor Liam Messam were in the Chiefs starting lineup.
Jet-lag surely accounts for some of it, but the Chiefs will be smart to acknowledge their shortcomings and address them urgently.
There was a worrying lack of execution from a side we expect much better from.
Even more concerning, they seemed to lack the spark that ignited their final quarters in both Pretoria and Bloemfontein.
They looked like they were going through the motions from the moment they strode out to 19-0 just past the opening quarter. The Rebels could easily have stolen this game if they'd been a bit more skilful over the closing stages.
The Chiefs rather flattered to deceive in the first half in front of a mid-sized home crowd (11,835), putting together a rollicking first quarter of an hour before things unravelled en route to a 19-6 lead.
The back-to-back champs, looking for their first victory in a month, led 16-0 after 15 minutes and 19-0 just past the opening quarter mark. But after that the errors came all too regularly and the possession and pace with which they opened the game with all but disappeared.
It had been an impressive beginning from the chastised Chiefs who would have received the message all week about their slow starts. There was urgency, effort and execution in equal measures and the Rebels found themselves under a heap of early pressure.
Gareth Anscombe, in his first start at No 10, slotted three penalties in little more than 10 minutes and on the quarter-hour mark lock Michael Fitzgerald powered over for his first Super Rugby try after skipper Retallick and Anscombe had taken turns making mincemeat of the Rebels defence.
Then the handling errors started to pop up and the Chiefs suddenly found it hard to win a breakdown, let alone break a tackle. The Rebels' possession count mounted and so too did their opportunities, the Aussie outfit probably disappointed to have only two Jason Woodward penalties to show for a strong second quarter.
An early seven-pointer was just what the Rebels doctor would have ordered, and it duly came four minutes in when the visitors cashed in on some pretty ordinary Chiefs defence.
It was Japanese hooker Shota Horie who smashed across for the score, but wing Tom English had carved the opportunity with a nice run wide on the left and, at 19-13, a romp had suddenly become a real arm-wrestle.
That's how it stayed right till the end, too. Anscombe and Woodward added a penalty apiece and both teams lost men to the sinbin, but neither were good enough on the night to add to this match's meagre try tally.
The good news for the Chiefs. Those competition points keep rolling in, now totalling 24 for a team still looking to get out of second gear.
Chiefs 22 (Michael Fitzgerald try; Gareth Anscombe 5 pens, con) Melbourne Rebels 16 (Shota Horie try; Jason Woodward 3 pens, con). Ht: 19-6.
- Sunday Star Times
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