The many critics who believe that the Chiefs will suffer without Sonny Bill Williams may want to think again after the champions underlined their status with a thrilling win over the Highlanders at the Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin on Friday.
The magnitude of the win may not have been a completely accurate reflection of a pulsating game that was a real privilege to be able to watch and which amply underlined what a great competition Super Rugby can be. But the Chiefs, who led for most of the match against a Highlanders team that kept on coming back at them, were full value for the five log points they picked up.
There were times when the defence wasn’t as good as it should be, but many of the defensive errors were simply forced by the angles of attack and hard running of two teams that were committed to an adventurous approach and royally entertained both the crowd in the stadium and the viewers watching on television.
Tim Nanai-Williams’s switch from the wing was one of the crucial factors for the Chiefs, and on this evidence the champs are going to be every bit as dangerous with ball in hand as they were when the more celebrated Sonny Bill was part of the mix. Nanai-Williams scored two scintillating tries, both of which highlighted his individual brilliance and blistering pace, the second of which effectively wrapped up the match with just under a quarter of an hour to play.
Until then it looked line any team’s game as the Highlanders had come back shortly after halftime to lead, with that lead being exchanged on a couple of occasions. The Chiefs had just struck back though for a one point advantage as Gareth Anscombe converted a Asaeli Tikoirotuma try.
The Highlanders went straight back onto the attack and on several occasions appeared to have set up a try-scoring opportunity in a long sustained period of play in which both teams took turns to play off turn-over possession. However when a Highlanders attack finally broke down deep in the Chiefs’ half, it was Nanai-Williams who skinned the tired Highlanders defenders for pace down the left touchline, with Anscombe adding the conversion to put his team more than a score ahead.
The Highlanders were under constant pressure after that, with referee Steve Walsh penalising them and Anscombe exploiting the situation by adding two more three pointers that put the game well out of range of the hosts.
Talking of Anscombe, he was right up there with Nanai-Williams and the skillful Chiefs pack as the star of the show for the winners. Not wanted by the Blues, he has moved to Hamilton, where he is now being deployed as a fullback. He kicked all but one of his attempts at posts, but he also contributed in general play, with his quick hands setting up a try for Fiji born winger Patrick Osborne.
It was Anscombe who put the first points of the match on the board with an early penalty, but the Highlanders were the first to score a try, with a long sustained build-up and then a tap penalty eventually resulting in Ben Smith showing a Midas touch with his handling as he picked up a Lima Sopoaga inside pass on his toes before dotting down next to the posts.
It was a spectacular way to start the first full round of Super Rugby for 2013, but if the Highlanders thought they were about to prove their favourite status they were wrong. They came back shortly before halftime with a try to wing and captain Hosea Gear, but for most of the half it was all the Chiefs and they could easily have been leading by more than just 16-14 at the break.
There were several great tries in the match but the first scored by Nanai-Williams was undeniably the best from an individual brilliance viewpoint. The centre broke the initial Highlanders line of defence after receiving a scrum ball inside his own half and then easily rounded the remaining defenders to run more than half the field for the score.
Highlanders – Tries: Ben Smith, Hosea Gear, Kade Poki. Conversions: Lima Sopoaga (3). Penalties: Sopoaga (2).
Chiefs – Tries: Tim Nanai-Williams (2), Patrick Osborne, Asaeli Tikoirotuma. Conversions: Gareth Anscombe (3). Penalties: Anscombe (4).