Under-strength, makeshift Chiefs defy pundits
The Chiefs made the doubters take notice with a bonus-point 41-27 victory over the much-hyped Highlanders in Dunedin last night.
The TAB and many supposed experts were all adamant the Highlanders, with their big-name recruitment in the off-season, would be too good for a defending champion Chiefs team without Sonny Bill Williams and several first-choice backs.
But the Chiefs, with Taranaki's Rhys Marshall on the field as the starting hooker at the age of 20 and before even playing in an ITM Cup game, were dominant in the scrums, superior in defence and deadly on counter-attack to win by four tries to three.
This was a dazzling game with the Highlanders equally intent on moving the ball wide and attacking from all parts of the field.
The Chiefs dominated the first spell for a 16-14 halftime lead after a shaky start but were let down by handling errors to some extent and had to rely on their super-efficient defence to keep the Highlanders at bay.
The only time they didn't succeed was through some individual brilliance from Highlanders fullback Ben Smith, who somehow picked up a Lima Sopoaga pass from around his bootlaces out in front of the posts and miraculously got it down for the first try.
Suddenly the home side, cheered on by a big, raucous crowd, had a 7-3 lead and some momentum in the 12th minute.
But two minutes later the Chiefs' transplanted centre, Tim Nanai-Williams, silenced them by racing away for a superb individual try off a dominant scrum.
He was helped by the fact that Highlanders halfback Aaron Smith rushed up offside on defence and second-five Ma'a Nonu also came up too quickly to leave a defensive hole.
It was all Nanai-Williams needed as he goose-stepped and ran around Ben Smith to score.
Gareth Anscombe, given the kicking duties for the Chiefs with Aaron Cruden still nursing a niggling groin injury, nailed the conversion. As his team gained more dominance he kicked a second penalty goal from out wide to make it 16-7. It was a sign of things to come from Anscombe, who had a strong game and kicked 8/9 at goal.
It looked like the score would stay that way to the break, and the Chiefs were temporarily disrupted with standout flanker Sam Cane taken from the field for a concussion test, only to return just before the changeover.
But stand-in Highlanders skipper Hosea Gear had other ideas. Getting the ball out wide on the left wing he easily beat Patrick Osborne and then powered through three other Chiefs defenders on the goal-line to score. Sopoaga converted from near the touchline.
The Highlanders took just two minutes of the second stanza to regain the lead through the boot of Sopoaga but again the Chiefs were quick to reply and under penalty advantage they fired back at the Highlanders' line in the right corner. They showed great patience as the advantage expired before the ball was moved left with Anscombe giving the final pass for winger Osborne to score for 21-17.
But there wasn't a moment to rest in this game and the Highlanders countered through winger Kade Poki, who beat the tackle of Nanai-Williams to score. Sopoaga converted and the hosts were up 24-21 just 10 minutes into second half.
The Chiefs looked dangerous but handling errors continued to handicap them.
And this aspect came back to haunt them when they conceded a penalty in front of their posts for Sopoaga to make it 27-21.
It appeared momentum had shifted significantly but no-one told the Chiefs and when they finally put some phases together and got their running game going from a quick penalty tap, winger Asaeli Tikoirotuma scored.
Anscombe's conversion put the Chiefs back in front 28-27, but the Highlanders fired straight back to again test the visitors' defence. Play became frantic and Ben Smith had the home side back on attack but the ball was spilt and Nanai-Williams was quick to pounce. After a quick step it was a 70m sprint to the line, his try converted by Anscombe who added two late penalties for some breathing space.
Chiefs 41 (Tim Nanai-Williams 2, Patrick Osborne, Asaeli Tikoirotuma tries; Gareth Anscombe 3 conversions, 5 penalty goals) Highlanders 27 (Ben Smith, Hosea Gear, Kade Poki tries; Lima Sopoaga 3 conversions, 2 penalty goals). Halftime 16-14 Chiefs.