The New Zealand rounds of Super Rugby Pacific began with no bang but a proverbial whimper, overshadowed by the result of a cricket match which ended only hours before.
The decision to start the tournament at the height of the summer meant it was always going to have to jostle for attention with New Zealand’s premier summer sport, cricket.
Three hours before the first match of the Super Rugby began on Saturday, New Zealand achieved its first Test cricket win over South Africa in 18 years. The win was achieved in less than half the duration of a five-day game and by a margin which was one of the largest in New Zealand’s history.
The opening Super Rugby match in New Zealand between the Chiefs and Highlanders came as an anticlimax against that backdrop.
The physical backdrop of the match: the tiny Wakatipu Rugby Club in Queenstown, in the shadow of the rugged, snow-capped Remarkables mountain range where the match was played without spectators, was more spectacular than the match itself.
The Chiefs had been impressive in pre-season and that carried that into a match in which they led throughout.
A try from the back of the scrum to No. 8 Pita Gus Sowakula gave the Chiefs a comfortable 18-6 lead heading into halftime. The first half had highlighted the rustiness of both teams but the Chiefs mostly controlled possession.
A try to Emoni Narawa eight minutes after halftime extended the Chiefs’ lead to 23-9 and though the Highlanders closed within seven points with a tryto Daniel Lienert-Brown, the Chiefs were easily able to hold on. A penalty to Chiefs flyhalf Bryn Gatland in the 76th minute sealed the 26-16 win.
Later, the 11-time champion Crusaders beat the Hurricanes 42-32 in a match of little defence.
The Hurricanes led 13-12 in the 30th minute and had the Crusaders under severe pressure, camped in their own half. A series of contentious decisions from then on swung the match in the Crusaders’ favour: the Hurricanes had three tries disallowed and a penalty try awarded against them.
The Crusaders won a penalty to take a 15-13 lead into halftime, and another early in the second half to lead 18-13.
Winger Leicester Fainga’anuku then scored the third of a hat trick of tries to give the Crusaders their first clear lead at 25-13 after 52 minutes.