Super Rugby: Highlanders, Chiefs say blame players and not refs for stop-start spectacle

Referee Ben O'Keeffe awards a penalty during the round seven Super Rugby Aotearoa match between the Highlanders and the Chiefs at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin on Saturday. Picture: STUFF SPORTS.

Coaches Tony Brown and Clayton McMillan and senior pros James Lentjes and Angus Ta’avao have unequivocally put the blame for Saturday’s disjointed Highlanders-Chiefs game on the players.

Although the contest had plenty of drama as Damian McKenzie landed a golden-point penalty to secure a crucial 26-23 win for the Chiefs, it was far from pretty at times.

Referee Ben O’Keeffe whistled up 23 penalties in Dunedin, repeatedly pinging both side for advancing in front of the kicker.

However, neither side had an issue with his interpretations and instead put the heat on players to eradicate “avoidable” penalties.

“You always give away penalties in a game of rugby but there was a lot of soft stuff tonight,” a frustrated Brown said of his side afterwards.

“And it’s avoidable. If you avoid those situations you’re going to create pressure.

“So, we just put pressure on ourselves. We beat ourselves tonight.”

Asked specifically about the ‘advancing’ penalties that disrupted the flow of the game, Brown said: “That’s the law.

“The referees are doing a great job at refereeing the law, and players aren’t adapting quick enough.

“Just not quite smart enough in those situations, for us, and obviously the Chiefs had a couple of those situations as well.”

Although the Chiefs had the game’s class acts in Damian McKenzie, Anton Lienert-Brown, Luke Jacobson and the twinkle-toed Etene Nanai-Seturo, they almost threw away a handy lead and were also guilty of getting on the wrong side of O’Keeffe.

McMillan was consequently happy with the win but also saw too many errors from his side to be beating his chest afterwards.

“It was bittersweet actually,” McMillan said. “From where I was sitting it looked untidy, with two teams that were pretty desperate.

“The accuracy was not great. It was a stop-start game. A lot of the penalties are legit. Players on both sides needed to be smarter.

“As long as the referees are consistent. If they ask you not to advance on a kick then don’t advance. It’s as simple as that.

“It’s probably challenging at times, especially here [at Forsyth Barr Stadium]. The noise is unbelievable under the roof.

“While we can hear the refs’ comms in out box pretty clear, ot everyone on the field is going to be able to hear that, or see when people put them onside.

“So, they’re going to be a little inaccurate at times there, but as long as the referees are consistent then we just have to be better in that space.”

The lack of flow was evident in Lentjes and Ta’avao’s condition after the game. Both looked as fresh as daisies and Ta’avao admitted that during a “weird” first half a lot of the Chiefs players felt like they “didn’t do much”.

But the All Blacks prop also backed the referees for their hard line on offside play.

“That’s fair play,” Ta’avao said. “We weren’t good enough. There were three penalties with guys in front advancing. You can’t keep winning games doing that.

“We keep talking about silly penalties that we can avoid easily. It’s not like we are challenging in a ruck and getting an unfair call. It’s stuff we can stop and we can control.”

Lentjes is coming from an awful ankle injury he suffered against the Rebels in Dunedin in February 2020.

He hasn’t played at Forsyth Barr Stadium since that incident but impressed on Saturday with his workrate and clever first-half try.

That represented a personal victory but the experienced No 7 also took a dim view of the Highlanders’ discipline.

“There were a lot of silly penalties tonight,” he said. “Things like advancing in front of the kicker. They’re picking off those little things this year so we’ve just got to be more disciplined.

“It’s not that hard. You just wait until you’re onside.”

 

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