Highlanders v Chiefs - Five things we learned

Bronson Murray of the Highlanders is caught in a tackle during match against the Chiefs at...
Bronson Murray of the Highlanders is caught in a tackle during match against the Chiefs at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin. Photo by Getty
Following the Highlanders' first-up Super 15 loss to the Chiefs on Friday night, ODT Online rugby contributor Jeff Cheshire looks at what we learned about the team.

They are going to play an up-tempo running game

This was obvious from the minute the game started, as the Highlanders looked to run the ball from anywhere and everywhere. Very seldom did they kick or play any sort of territory game, preferring to keep ball in hand and look to break the defensive line.

In contrast to the past two seasons, there was less emphasis put on gaining dominance up front, as the game was played at such a pace that the forwards had to fan out, rather than commit numbers to the breakdown. Undoubtedly this contributed to what was a great spectacle of fast, free-flowing rugby, but at times there was a feeling they may have been better to slow it down, get some phases going in close or play a bit of territory.

What this did show us though, was just how devastating the back three can be when they are given their chances, all three looking lethal all night.

The set-piece needs work

If there was to be one major concern from their season opener, it was the way the Highlanders' set-piece faltered. You simply can't expect to win rugby games without a good platform and while a dangerous backline is helpful, they won't be anywhere near as effective as they could be if the set-piece is shaky.

The lineout in particular was a mess, there was too much movement and there seemed to be confusion at times as to exactly where the ball needed to be thrown. It was this that resulted in so much ball being lost and what was won to be messy. While combinations are still developing it can be better to simplify the moves and then add in more complex calls as the players get used to each other.

At scrum time they struggled too, although they did tend to hold on well enough to at least win their own ball for the most part. Bringing back Andrew Hore and Brad Thorn should strengthen them up in this department.

Discipline needs to be better

Just as the set-piece needs work, so does the discipline of the Highlanders. While it's inevitable that penalties are going to be conceded, they need to be limited so the brainless ones aren't conceded.

Ones like the Liam Coltman late tackle are easily avoidable, but can costly in the context of the game. There were too many breakdown penalties as well, something which usually comes as a result of being put under pressure on defence.

Penalties contributed 15 points to the Chiefs' total, which in the end was too many.

How much Adam Thomson will be missed

This became apparent early on and became even more so as the game progressed. Joe Wheeler did a good job in his debut for the Highlanders, but he is a different player to Thomson, a hard-worker rather than a ranging looseforward. He brings added strength in the tight but with no other player like Thomson, they definitely lose a lot in the loose.

Thomson had the ability to take ball into contact and seemingly always retain it, whether it be in close or out wide where he was also a threat running. His defence too was outstanding while he was missed in the lineout where he has been the go to man for the past couple of years.

The little things are the difference

It's often just that extra five percent that can be the difference between a close win and an apparently heavy loss. One dropped pass and a couple of defensive lapses can make an otherwise close game look like a not so good loss, as we saw last night from the Highlanders.

At this level you can't give your opponent half a chance, as more often than not they will take it and undo all the good work that was done previously. Ultimately it is this that separates the contenders from the pretenders and who will still be around in July come playoffs time.

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