IT felt a bit like finding a penny but losing a pound, with the buzz induced by the return to our screens of live rugby being more than offset by the disappointment of having to accept that it was happening over 11,500 miles away in front of a near full-house at the Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin – providing a stark contrast to the outlook for Scottish rugby, where we are hoping that our pro players will hopefully be able to attend ‘voluntary fitness sessions’ at Murrayfield from 22nd June, with the possibility of some games (probably behind closed doors) being played by late August or early September.
New Zealand’s emphatic response to the Covid-19 crisis – committing to a strict national lockdown on 25th March at a time when the country had only 102 cases and zero deaths – appears to have eradicated the virus in the country meaning that Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was able to lift all restrictions except stringent border controls last Monday.
The timing was ideal to make the first weekend of Super Rugby Aotearoa – the internal competition for New Zealand’s five Super Rugby franchises – a natural focal point for national celebration. Over 20,000 of a possible 22,800 tickets for this match were sold on Saturday morning local time, while Sunday morning’s match between the Blues and the Hurricanes at Eden Park is a 41,000 sell-out (which will make it the biggest nn-international crowd in New Zealand since 2005).
In this match, there were streakers on the pitch and drinks flowing in the stands. Players and coaches strolled around the stadium afterwards, signing autographs and posing for photos with fans. It was like our television screens had become windows into a parallel universe.
If the novelty of live action for the first time in three months was not enough to get rugby fanatics licking their lips in anticipation, the trial of a number of law variations and a sharpening up of the way the breakdown (and offside) is officiated had the anoraks really salivating.
The inevitable rustiness after such a long lay-off, and the challenge of adapting to the way the referee was managing the breakdown, meant that the game was perhaps not always the free-flowing spectacle everyone was looking for to celebrate the occasion – but the ferocity of the contest and the drama of the finale meant that nobody will have come away from the match feeling short-changed.
With ten minutes to go, the Chiefs were 25-19 down, but showed all the resilience you would expect from a team now playing under former Wales head coach Warren Gatland in battling back to take the lead, thanks to an Anton Lienert-Brown try and then a dramatic drop-goal from full-back Damian McKenzie with less than three minutes left on the clock.
But the Highlanders were not done yet, winning the ball back from the restart and snatching the win when Bryn Gatland – son of Warren and a late call-up to the squad when Josh Ioane picked up an injury just before kick-off – fired home a monstrous drop-goal of his own from over 35 metres in the final minute.
The chat round the Sunday dinner table at the Gatland household is likely to be strained this weekend.
The key focal points for the referees at the breakdown are:
- Ball carriers will be allowed only one dynamic movement after being tackled
- Crawling, or any secondary movement other than placing or passing, will be penalised.
- Tacklers will be expected to roll away immediately in the direction of the side-line. This will be a referee’s “number one priority” at the tackle.
- There will be “extra focus” on the offside line with defenders expected to be “clearly” onside to provide attacking teams more space.
The rule change that red-cards no longer mean a team being left with 14 players for the remainder of the contest, with a replacement for the offending player being allowed to take the field after 20 minutes (the culprit doesn’t get back on), was not really tested. The Hurricanes had two men yellow-carded for dangerous tackles, and the first one – when Highlanders full-back Vilimoni Koroi tipped his opponents past vertical – could easily have been a red, but the new rule did not tempt referee Paul Williams into brandishing the ultimate sanction.
Similarly, the creation of sudden-death overtime if the teams are tied after 80 minutes did not become a live issue, although it was desperately tight at the end.
It was the stricter enforcement of the breakdown which really impacted the game (not surprisingly given that this is almost certainly the area of rugby which is most complicated and open to varying interpretations).
The first half had been entertaining enough. Mitch Hunt put the home team into an early lead on three minutes after the Chiefs strayed offside in defence, but McKenzie levelled it with a penalty of his own a few moments later, then nudged his side ahead on 14 minutes when Highlanders second-row Pari Pari Parkinson was called for a side-entry.
Highlanders then took control of the match with hooker and captain Ash Dixon powering over off the back of a driving maul, and then Rob Thompson hitting a superb line before releasing midfield partner Sio Tomkinson for try number two.
Chiefs bounced back to snatch the lead briefly, after good hands sent Sean Wainui over in the corner and McKenzie slotted his third penalty of the day, but the Highlanders were back in front by the break when Mikaele Tu’i from another powerful maul to make it 22-16 at the turnaround.
McKenzie kicked his fourth penalty of the match early in the second half, and even when Hunt replied in kind to restore it to a six point game, it looked like a golden-point scenario might be on the cards – but that didn’t factor in the dramatic conclusion, which went a long way to erasing the growing frustration onlookers had felt at the lack of continuity caused by so many breakdown penalties.
The new approach to the breakdown is a much needed attempt at tidying up an important and increasingly ragged area of the game. It is going to take time. The fact that this match went ahead in the circumstances it did is surely the best demonstration possible that if something is worth achieving, then you must commit to it properly, and not be blown off track by any short-term pain which the chosen strategy may cause.