The half-time spray that sparked Highlanders
REACTION: It was two starkly contrasting sets of post-match reactions, after a dramatic 82nd-minute try by Sio Tomkinson capped a thrilling second-half Highlanders fightback in Hamilton on Sunday.
The Highlanders snatched a 33-31 Super Rugby Aotearoa victory over the Chiefs on Sunday – only their second win of the season, both over the Chiefs.
A dejected Chiefs captain Sam Cane described it as like “trying to hold back a wave” as the Highlanders – trailing 0-24 after the first quarter and 7-31 early in the second half, stormed home with four unanswered tries.
Highlanders coach Aaron Mauger admitted he unleashed a rare half-time spray on his team, as they produced one of the most memorable comebacks in recent memory.
“Very rarely to be fair,” Mauger said, when asked if his half-time speech is a regular occurrence.
“The first thing was around mentality,” he said, adding: “We set ourselves up for a couple of those early tries from not working hard enough and that’s unacceptable.
“Once we addressed that it was back to strategy and how to build our game. Credit to these boys they went out and did it.”
Highlanders captain Ash Dixon also spoke about stern words at half-time.
“In that first half we were well off the pace and the Chiefs came out really well and we couldn’t contain them and gave away a lot of silly penalties,” Dixon said.
“But once we got to the right end of the field and played a bit of ball, things happened.”
The Chiefs raced into a 24-0 lead after 20 minutes – with three converted tries and a penalty, aided by a string of mistakes from the visitors.
The Chiefs had a 24-7 cushion at half-time and extended the lead to 31-7 with another try soon after the restart – before the Highlanders clicked and clawed their way back.
“It’s no good for a coach,” Mauger said of the frantic finish.
“It’s hard on the ticker for a coach. It would be nice to be more convincing but it’s what you expect. These are the moments you live for. We’re happy to nail those key moments and we’ll enjoy a few beers.”
Chiefs coach Warren Gatland has now presided over five straight defeats.
Gatland, the celebrated British and Irish Lions coach who returned to New Zealand after steering Wales to the World Cup semifinals last year, had also seen his Chiefs team lose to the Highlanders in the dying seconds in their opening Super Rugby Aotearoa match last month.
On that occasion in Dunedin, Gatland watched as his son Bryn slotted the match-winning drop-goal for the Highlanders just before the final whistle.
“With that lead, we should have been comfortable closing the game out,” Gatland said.
“All of us need to have a good look at ourselves to make sure we learn from that.
“It’s an absolute challenge. We were really happy before lockdown. We know how close this New Zealand competition is. We’re not being rolled over by 30, 40 points. We’re competing against all these teams and we just need a bit of luck and that will turn.
“We’ve got to be more clinical than that and unfortunately we weren’t.”
Three first-half tries – the only time the Chiefs have crossed in the opening half in this competition – left the Highlanders stunned.
Chiefs captain Sam Cane said they had enough opportunities to win, but let themselves down.
“It certainly hurts to lose one at the death like that,” Cane said.
“We had the win in our grasp and we’re pretty disappointed,” he added.
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