February 15, 2019

Gallagher Chiefs edged out by Pulse Energy Highlanders in season opener

The Gallagher Chiefs have slipped to a late 30-27 defeat against the Highlanders in the opening match of the 2019 Investec Super Rugby season at FMG Stadium Waikato.

In a typical fast paced, hard hitting New Zealand derby match up, the Chiefs recovered from a slow start to lead for most of the match, outscoring the Highlanders four tries to three, but it was an Aaron Smith try in the final minutes that proved to be the match winner in a close and entertaining contest.

The visitors got off to a flying start and looked to have crossed for the opening try just two minutes into the match, but hooker Liam Coltman was adjudged to be held up over the line after a break from second five Thomas Umaga-Jensen.

Several minutes of desperate defence followed as the Chiefs admirably kept the Highlanders at bay.

After finally working their way out from inside their own 22, simple errors from the Chiefs allowed the Highlanders more good field position and this time they made the hosts pay with the first try of the Super Rugby season going to lock Pari Pari Parkinson.

Young first five Josh Ioane added the extras and the 7-0 lead was good reward for the Highlanders' strong opening 15 minutes, but this was followed by a sharp momentum swing with the Chiefs striking back with two quick tries of their own.

Back to back charged down kicks gave the home side a golden opportunity with a scrum five metres from the line, and big Canadian Number 8 Tyler Ardron took full advantage as he picked up from the back of the scrum to score.

It was then two tries in as many minutes as Chiefs second five Anton Lienert-Brown sparked an attack from inside his own half, and he was on hand to deliver the final pass for prop Angus Ta’avao to score after a well-placed chip and chase from wing Bailyn Sullivan.

Halfback Brad Weber was given the goal kicking duties for the evening and he converted the Ta'avao try to make it a 12-7 Chiefs lead.

Both teams began to tire as the end of the first half approached, with the pace of the game clearly taking its toll in the first match of the season.

Out of nowhere the Chiefs produced another piece of scintillating attacking rugby with Lienert-Brown bursting into a gap before finding Nathan Harris with a wide pass, and the hooker offloaded for wing Etene Nanai-Seturo to stroll in and score on his Chiefs and Super Rugby debut.

Weber's conversion completed a superb turnaround for the Chiefs, with the Highlanders finding themselves down by nine points at halftime after a late Josh Ioane penalty, despite enjoying more possession and territory in the first 40 minutes.

Like the first half, it was the visitors who started stronger and their pressure on the Chiefs defence led to another Ioane penalty which narrowed the gap to six points.

Just as it looked like the Highlanders were working their way back into the match, the pace and accuracy of the Chiefs attack once again proved too much. After swinging play from a lineout to the right sideline, two debutants combined as first five Orbyn Leger produced a pin point cross field kick for an unmarked Nanai-Seturo who cruised across the line for his second try.

The middle stages of the second half were tough and physical with substitutions much needed for both teams at around the three-quarter mark, and it seemed the fresh legs gave the Highlanders the advantage as they visibly lifted their game. After patiently working their way downfield, prop Tyrel Lomax made a good burst and replacement loose forward Shannon Frizell finished off the Highlanders second try.

Ioane's conversion brought the Chiefs lead back to just four points and set up an intriguing final 15 minutes, but shortly after the Highlanders were dealt a big blow as Patelesio Tomkinson was shown a red card for a no arms tackle.

From the resulting penalty Chiefs stalwart Stephen Donald stepped up and slotted the three points to give his side some breathing space, but this was quickly cancelled out as Ioane nailed his third penalty of the night just a minute later.

Despite the one-man disadvantage, the Highlanders surged towards the Chiefs line, searching desperately for a third try that would put them back in front. All Black halfback Aaron Smith, who had come off the bench early in the second half, found a small gap at the back of the ruck to squeeze over the line to give his side the lead with just four minutes remaining.

A desperate last push upfield from the Chiefs was then thwarted by the Highlanders who cleared to touch to seal a gutsy opening round win.

Gallagher Chiefs 27 (Etene Nanai-Seturo 2, Tyler Ardron, Angus Ta’avao tries; Brad Weber 2 cons, Stephen Donald pen) Highlanders 30 (Pari Pari Parkinson, Shannon Frizell, Aaron Smith tries; Josh Ioane 3 cons, 3 pens) HT: 19-10.

Next up for the Gallagher Chiefs is a trip over the Tasman to take on the Brumbies in Canberra on Saturday 23 February (kick off 9.45pm NZ time).

Gallagher Chiefs edged out by Pulse Energy Highlanders in season opener