New Zealand broke the rugby lockdown with the first two matches in their new Aotearoa Super Rugby competition this weekend with the two home sides each getting on their way with wins and valuable points on the log.
The double-round competition saw the Highlanders shade the Chiefs 28-27 in Dunedin on Saturday; and the Blues continuing their turn-around of fortunes and results before the Covid-19 put a stop to their progress this season.
They beat the Hurricanes 30-22 at Eden Park.
Main features of the two matches included the two big and largely exuberant crowds on this return to rugby at the weekend’s two venues.
In Dunedin, New Zealand's only covered outdoor stadium, more than 20 000 spectators were present to see a Bryn Gatland, son of the opponents’ coach Warren Gatland, land the winning points for the home side with a well-taken drop goal 90 seconds before the final whistle.
At Eden Park, New Zealand’s biggest ground, there were 42 000 spectators, said to be the biggest Super Rugby crowd in Auckland since the same two sides met in 2005.
The quality of the rugby in between the huge number of penalties in both matches was fairly good considering a break of nearly three months, but continuity was lacking because of the zealous officiating of especially the breakdowns and the off-side line at rucks.
In both cases the new experimental laws caused the players problems as the officials kept to the official prescription of administering the laws firmly. On Saturday Paul Williams awarded 28 penalties to the two teams and on Sunday Mike Fraser penalised the Blues and Hurricanes 30 times.
The new laws and strict refereeing also led to more than the usual number of turnovers in both matches with players’ uncertainty over what was allowed or not. This led to in hesitancy in contesting (or not!) on the ground.
♦ In Dunedin, the Highlanders used their opportunities better than the Chiefs, who controlled possession and territory, carried the ball more often and further and also the breakdown. They conceded less penalties, but Gatland will be concerned with the four lineouts his team lost on their own throw.
♦ In Sunday’s match in Auckland, the game was statistically closer than the Saturday scrap in Dunedin. The Blues, however, looked the more polished and organised of the two sides and used their possession better.
Generally, they looked superior in their build-ups and finishing, despite the stats giving the losers Hurricanes a seemingly narrow edge which they didn’t use effectively.
After a close first half, when they went into the break only one point ahead at 14-13, the Blues pulled away to be 30-13 up with two minutes to play before the Canes scored their only second-half points.
Points scorers in the two matches –
Highlanders vs Chiefs
Highlanders – Tries: Ash Dixon, Patelesio Tomkinson, Marino Mikaele Tu’u. Conversions: Mitch Hunt 2. Penalties: Hunt 2. Drop goal: Bryn Gatland
Chiefs – Tries: Wainui, Lienert-Brown. Conversions: Damian McKenzie. Penalties: McKenzie 4. Drop goal: McKenzie.
Blues vs Hurricanes
Blues – Tries: Caleb Clarke, TJ Faiane, Dalton Papali’i. Conversions: Otere Black (3). Penalties: Black (3).
Hurricanes – Tries: Dane Coles, Ben Lam, Jamie Booth. Conversion: Jackson Garden-Bachop. Penalty: Garden-Bachop.