Chiefs hold on to deny desperate Rebels

TOUGH WORK: Augustine Pulu of the Chiefs is tackled by Tamati Ellison.
TOUGH WORK: Augustine Pulu of the Chiefs is tackled by Tamati Ellison.

Waikato farmers are feeling the pinch from a drought but at least the Chiefs' dry spell is over.

Their 22-16 win over the underwhelming Melbourne Rebels in Hamilton tonight served more as light relief than a problem-solving downpour, though.

Following a shock loss in Perth and come-from-behind draws in South Africa the Chiefs had been without a win for almost one month - the longest winless period in the Dave Rennie era.

Naturally, then, they will take the victory and regroup for the Crusaders at the same venue next week.

But Chiefs management are astute enough to realise this was far from pretty. Scoring just three second-half points is well below their standards.  

Apart from an early onslaught, which saw them pile on 16 unanswered points in as many minutes, they were decidedly disjointed.

The overall fixture, however, was not helped by some perplexing decisions by referee Matt O'Brien. On at least four occasions the Australian ignored advice from his sideline assistant.

The Chiefs had scored the most tries in the competition - 21- but they could only manage one barge-over strike from lock Michael Fitzgerald, which summed up their struggles.   

There were positives for the 11,845 locals. 

In Aaron Cruden's absence, Gareth Anscombe stepped up with a largely composed display. The Blues discard had not started in the 10 jersey at this level for over two years - that didn't stop him taking on the line with confidence and putting others into space. As usual, his accurate goal-kicking was also to the fore with 17 flawless points from the boot.

Returning from South Africa is never easy. So after conceding 77 points over the last two weeks the Chiefs will be pleased their defence took a noticeable step forward, though the Rebels were not brilliant on attack.

In fact, before Luke Burgess' arrival at halfback in the 30th minute they could hardly put a pass in-front of the man. 

It should come as no surprise the Chiefs battled for much of the match. They hadn't been forced to cope without both Cruden's direction and Liam Messam's leadership since 2008. The two influential players have been figureheads in the defending champions' success.   

Rennie's rotation policy has served him well. No-one can argue with successive championships. But with depth being severely tested at present, his side appeared to lack cohesion. Unfamiliar combinations didn't have the same inherent understanding, and at times it shows.

After returning from shoulder surgery and six-month's rehab, second five-eighth Bundee Aki was one player who seemed anxious throughout. Livewire halfback Augustine Pulu, who impressed in the Republic, had some nice snipes but was also guilty of errors from the base. 

This week, at least, the Chiefs didn't allow their opposition a head start.

On the back of a stable set-piece and some hard earned pick-and-go metres from the forward pack - led well by big stand-in captain Brodie Retallick, who later failed a concussion test, Sam Cane and hooker Rhys Marshall - they looked at ease for the first quarter.

From there, though, their intensity dissolved and frustrating handling errors at the breakdown - six in the first-half - crept into their game. Each time they ventured into striking distance they allowed the Rebels to regroup and escape danger.

Messam's injection in the 58th minute and a yellow card to Rebels captain Scott Higginbotham should have seen the Chiefs shut the door.

Instead, replacement Chiefs prop Pauliasi Manu also copped a yellow card and it was the Rebels who, just as they did against the Highlanders in Dunedin last week, finished strong in pursuit of their first win on foreign soil.

The visitors had ample chances to steal the match at the death but couldn't execute in the face of strong defensive pressure.

Once again, the Chiefs found a way to hang tough.


Chiefs: Michael Fitzgerald tries, Gareth Anscombe pen 5, con


Rebels: Shota Horie try, Woodward pen 3, con


Fairfax Media