/ 7 May 2011

Chiefs beat Highlanders 20-7

Former All Blacks flyhalf Stephen Donald became the seventh player to surpass 800 points in Super rugby, landing two penalties and a conversion as the Waikato Chiefs beat the Otago Highlanders 20-7 on Saturday.

Donald kicked two first-half penalties for the Chiefs, who trailed 7-6 at halftime, and added the conversion of Brendon Leonard’s try as Waikato took the lead from Otago in the second half.

But Donald did little to advance his chances of an All Blacks recall in the vacant role as World Cup understudy to Daniel Carter, managing only three goals from five attempts before leaving the field with an injury 15 minutes from fulltime.

The Chiefs and Highlanders collectively managed only five of nine shots at goal, continuing the poor goalkicking performances which have been a feature of the play of New Zealand sides this season. Overall, New Zealand’s five teams have managed a kicking success rate of little better than 60%.

The Highlanders, previously fifth-placed with seven wins from 10 games, suffered their second straight loss to a New Zealand opponent after last week’s 15-10 loss to the Auckland Blues.

They were hard hit by injuries on Saturday, almost clearing their bench before halftime. Among the injured were flanker Adam Thomson — who joins a long list of currently injured All Blacks — and first-half tryscorer Jason Rutledge.

Rutledge gave the Highlanders a 7-0 lead with his try after nine minutes, created by a brilliant side-step and explosive attacking run by flyhalf Lima Sopoaga. When Sopoaga split open the Chiefs defence, hooker Rutledge supported him wide out and took the flyhalf’s floating pass to score.

Handling errors
Otago remained dominant for the first 30 minutes, forcing repeated turnovers with the strong counter-rucking which has been their forte this season. But handling errors prevented them from capitalizing on attacking opportunities and Waikato was able to fight its way back into the match.

The Chiefs first regained parity at the breakdown with a physical effort in the final minutes of the first half, then dominated both territory and possession through the second as Otago’s pattern frayed with repeated personnel changes.

Waikato was also guilty of squandering attacking chances through handling errors and Donald was one of the principal offenders. After missing a penalty which would have given the Chiefs the comfort of a nine-point lead after 56 minutes, he dropped a difficult pass with the line open only minutes later.

He also threw a number of poor passes which took the edge off attacking movements. All Blacks winger Sitiveni Sivivatu returned from injury to strengthen the Chiefs backline on Saturday and looked full of running but he lacked opportunities.

“It was important [to win],” Chiefs captain Mils Muliaina said. Muliaina played his 50th for the Chiefs on Saturday and will play his 100th Super rugby match next weekend.

“The Highlanders are a quality side and we needed this one. It wasn’t pretty but thankfully enough we were on the right end of it. It took us 40 minutes to get the physicality back in there.”

Saturday’s win was the Chiefs’ fourth in 11th games and kept alive their chances of a playoff place, though they remain fourth in the five-team New Zealand conference behind the Auckland Blues, Canterbury Crusaders and Highlanders.

The Highlanders now have to restore their winning momentum in a third derby match next weekend against the Wellington Hurricanes.

“I think we let ourselves down with a few too many mistakes,” captain Jamie Mackintosh said. “They went in and took it to us at the rucks which is what we’ve been priding ourselves on. It was a good battle but you can’t win games if you can’t hold onto the ball.” – Sapa-AP