March 30, 2018

Gallagher Chiefs take down the Highlanders in Sam Cane's 100th

The Gallagher Chiefs have marked Sam Cane's 100th match for the club with a hard fought 27-22 win over the Highlanders at FMG Stadium Waikato in another physical and entertaining New Zealand derby.

In a match where momentum swung back and forth throughout, with the Chiefs giving up a 13-point lead at once stage, they kept their cool to come from behind in the final quarter to claim another four important competition points.

The opening stages of the match saw a patient and cautious start from both teams, with the Highlanders dealt an early blow as All Black first five Lima Sopoaga was forced from the field with an Achilles injury in just the fifth minute.

Over a dozen phases hard on attack then followed from the Chiefs as they pressured the Highlanders line until a penalty was blown in their favour which first five Damian McKenzie converted from handy to the posts.

Both teams then enjoyed time in possession, with the home side looking more dangerous on attack but were met by some equally impressive Highlanders defence. Their attacking raid again resulted in three points as McKenzie ended the opening quarter of the match with his second penalty to give his side a six-point lead.

The response came from the visitors as they slowly worked their way downfield, playing more direct and showing good ball retention, before second five Rob Thompson saw some space and placed a well weighted cross kick for his wing Waisake Naholo who collected and scored in the right-hand corner.

Replacement first five Fletcher Smith nailed the conversion from out wide and the Highlanders, somewhat against the run of play, found themselves in front 7-6 after 25 minutes.

Back to back line breaks from McKenzie and wing Sean Wainui gave the Chiefs a good chance for further points but possession was lost inside the Highlanders 22.

For the final 10 minutes of the half the Chiefs continued to ask questions of the Highlanders with their defence finally cracking just one minute before the break. Under penalty advantage, McKenzie produced a well-placed cross kick for Toni Pulu with the winger jumping high and tapping the ball back inside superbly for fullback Solomon Alaimalo to score.

McKenzie's conversion, on target from near the sideline, was the last play of the half as the Chiefs headed into the changing rooms with a 13-7 lead.

The Chiefs came out firing from the halftime break, with a rampaging attack from deep inside their own territory coming up just 10 metres short, and from the resulting scrum McKenzie made a dart for the line with hooker Nathan Harris on hand to pick up and burrow his way over.

McKenzie added the extras to all of a sudden take them out to a 13-point lead.

Just like they had in the first half, the Highlanders responded well to conceding points as they steadily worked towards the Chiefs line and, after keeping the Chiefs defence on their toes with a quick tap, halfback Aaron Smith fired a wide pass from a ruck for an unmarked Tevita Li to score.

With momentum in their favour they soon added further points as Fletcher Smith kicked a penalty to narrow the gap to just five points with 20 minutes remaining.

Two minutes later a charged down kick saw the Highlanders swing onto attack once more, and a scrambling Chiefs defence couldn't recover in time as replacement Sio Tomkinson waltzed through a gap to score, with Fletcher Smith's conversion putting the visitors back in front 22-20.

Their lead didn't last long as some good strong running from both forwards and backs saw the Chiefs charge back into Highlanders territory, and eventually the movement was finished off out wide by wing Sean Wainui.

McKenzie's perfect night off the tee continued as he drilled the sideline conversion to restored a five-point lead with 10 minutes left to play.

The Highlanders moved towards the Chiefs line to set up a tense finish which was a fitting end to an enthralling contest. But consecutive lineout wins against the throw for the Chiefs helped to relieve the pressure, and they were able to wind the clock down and clear to touch to seal a hard-earned victory.

Gallagher Chiefs 27 (Solomon Alaimalo, Nathan Harris, Sean Wainui tries; Damian McKenzie 3 cons, 2 pens) Highlanders 22 (Waisake Naholo, Tevita Li, Sio Tomkinson tries; Fletcher Smith 2 cons, pen) HT: 13-7.

The Gallagher Chiefs will be back at FMG Stadium Waikato again next week, with local rivals the Blues coming to town on Saturday 7 April, kick off 7.35pm.

Gallagher Chiefs take down the Highlanders in Sam Cane's 100th