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The Highlanders took on the reigning champs the Chiefs, who look like they will not relinquish their trophy without a fight.
After the initial 'feel out' period for each team, a bunch of schoolboy turn-overs as well as a high penalty count the game turned into a fast-paced end to end competition similar to that of playing a game of Jonah Lomu Rugby.
Thirteen minutes was all it took for the game to start to open up when local hero Ben Smith gathered a ball off his toes from Lima Sopoaga and barged his way over from 10m to score right beside the posts. Smith was on fire all game, carving up from the fullback position. His running and vision on attack is going to be so important to the Highlanders throughout the 2013 season. He certainly showed us why he is an All Black.
Smith was found out not long after his great try-scoring efforts, however, as Chiefs centre and probably the best player on the park all night Tim Nani-Williams made a break from a set piece. As new recruit Ma'a Nonu rushed out of the line he created a hole for Williams which he breezed through and then gassed Smith on the outside for his first try of the evening.
On the stroke of half-time, stand-in captain Hosea Gear scored a great try showing exceptional pace and power to get past, as Justin Marshall said, "a thousand Chiefs defenders". With Sopoaga converting the Highlanders ran into the sheds at the break with their heads held high as they were only trailing 16-14.
When the second half kicked off, the Highlanders seemed to pick up where they left off. Hot on attack. They secured a penalty almost out in front which was converted. The 'Landers managed only a couple of more scoring plays. A try to the powerful Kade Poki which was converted and another penalty.
Once the 60min mark hit the game really began to open up. For about five minutes the ball travelled end to end about five or six times before Nani-Williams found himself with one to beat. He tippy-toed his way around the Otago defender and ran the best part of 70m and collapsed over the line to score his second for the night.
The Highlanders fought hard to get back in the game but forcing plays and passes never works and they were not able to get themselves back in the game. Gareth Anscombe put it out of reach with his fourth and fifth penalties taking the Chiefs to an opening 41-27 victory, which to be fair to the Highlanders is not a fair reflection of how the game went.
It's great to see rugby back for 2013 and if this first up contest is anything to go by we are in for one hell of a season. All in all, not a bad first outing for the Highlanders as they showed they are capable of scoring points with relative ease.
Once a few of the older heads return, like Andrew Hore, and big bad Brad Thorn as well as Colin Slade their defence should tighten up. My early pick is for the Highlanders to scrape their way into the top six.
Feel free to follow me on Twitter (@Gldf1sh) to give me any feedback through out the season or just talk Highlanders!
- Karl Tily