We are still in summer in the Southern Hemisphere and international cricket is still being played here in Aotearoa – New Zealand. However, the rugby season has started, and we are into our second week. I guess the media Moghuls have to keep getting richer and certainly we are seeing lots of great running rugby due to the drier conditions.
There are a few new rules being trialled in this largely domestic tournament. Among them the captain’s challenge, a rule that allows 10 seconds to implement and has resulted in the appointment of co-captains, one from the forwards and one from the backs. More on that later.
We saw a game between the Waikato Chiefs and Otago Highlanders played on Friday evening. Chiefs of course being captained by the All-Blacks captain himself, Sam Cane with co-captain, Brad Webber the busy half back or scrum-half as we used to call them. Webber got a run with the All Blacks in preference to the incumbent understudy T.J. Peranara, last year and gave a good account of himself. The Chiefs were also trying out a new no10 Bryn Gatland, pinched from the Highlanders. This probably means that Damian Mackenzie will start at full-back this season, something that he (Damian) may not be too happy about. Liam Squire who was recovering from hip surgery and resulting complications was also starting at no6, a welcome return for a great-hearted player.
The Highlanders were being led by veteran hooker Ash Dickson and the co-captain was Aaron Smith who incidentally didn’t start the game, with new boy Folau Fakatara being picked in the no 9 jersey. Fakatara is a highly talked-up player with a rather fancy hairstyle (reminds me of the tail of a bird of paradise!) who played well but failed to show exceptional skills. The Highlanders were playing in white jerseys and khaki shorts which may be a suggestion for our Police or Army teams back in the Pearl. They looked rather smart. The Highlanders also had Jonah Nareki who had shown so much skill last season at no11, the old number of no doubt, the person whose first name he had been given.
The Waikato Chiefs were tipped by almost everyone to win as they were at home albeit without the loud cowbells of the home team due to Covid 19 restrictions. One factor that should have tipped off any punter was that Sir John Kirwan, the well-known ex All-Black winger tipped the Chiefs to win. JK is also known to get these things horribly wrong and will find it hard to live down his prediction of an Argentine loss to the All Blacks before that historic win by the Pumas!
Things started off on cue with Sam Cane earning a penalty off a ruck within 22 seconds of the start and Damian Mackenzie slotting it with ease. The first 30 minutes or so belonged entirely to the Chiefs and they raced to a 20 – 6 lead. The Highlanders were penalized continually and had two yellow cards dished out, including one to their skipper Ash Dickson. The Chiefs made maximum use of having an extra man on the field and scored twice in quick succession during this period. The only weak link in the Chiefs seemed to be their no10 Gatlin, who consistently made mistakes and made one too many when an attempted chip kick, in the opposition 22, was smothered by the opposition, ended up in the hands of Jonah Nareki who ran the length of the field and scored a try against the run of play. This could be called the turning point of the game and even though the Chiefs still had a healthy lead 20 – 11 at half time, this resurgence of spirit combined no doubt with an expletive-laced “talking to” from their coach (his own admission) at half time saw an amazing turnaround.
The Highlanders didn’t take kickable penalties in the second half and chose to kick for touch and go for the attacking line outs. Shannon Frazelle the All-Blacks blindside flanker who had been steady in the first half was showing more fire and commitment. Five minutes into the second half the hard-tackling Chiefs center and All Black, Lennert- Brown injured his arm and had to go off. “Bird of Paradise” no 9 Fakatava wormed his way through traffic and scored a try for the Highlanders in the 49th minute and was promptly substituted by the one and only Aaron Smith! What a player to be able to bring on at this stage of the game to add weight to a great fightback. The score read 20 -18 with the Chiefs still in the lead.
From this point, it was the Jonah Nareki show! First a scything run, at the end of which he found the inspired Shannon Frazelle, who strolled over the line. They say Nareki has low hips and is hard to tackle, be that as it may, the loss due to injury of hard tackling Lennert- Brown may have also contributed as Nareki kept coming in off his wing and running through the midfield. Nareki completed a hat trick of tries and took the Highlanders to victory with the final score reading 23 – 39.
However, there was one more drama in store. The captain’s challenge or captain’s referral is a new rule that allows the captain to challenge a decision by the referee once during the game. The captain has only 10 seconds to do it in. Hence the need for co-captains in case one of the captains is detained elsewhere in the field. The Chiefs scored a try almost at full time, but the run of play had led to one of the Chiefs players going into a tackle “leading with his arm” a possible red card offense that was missed by the referee. Aaron Smith was quick to point this out to the ref and the resulting video check showed this challenge was valid. The try was disallowed, and a simple penalty awarded to the Highlanders. This was the first time this trial “rule” was invoked. It needs a few more instances to prove its worth.
The overall refereeing was good with the officials even spotting crooked throws into lineouts, which was refreshing. Usually, the referee stands to one side of the line out and misses these offenses. The commentators tried to insinuate that a large number of penalties and yellow cards awarded against the Highlanders were excessive but when the highlanders got their act together in the second half, things returned to normal. In fact, it may have been these penalties that resulted in a better second half of rugby. Jonah Nareki is a name to remember for the future! Even though the national team has a wealth of wingers, this young man can even play center and is certainly a better choice than Ricco Ioane of the Auckland Blues, who seems to be being groomed for the job and is nothing but a no 11 or 14.