Friday, October 23, 2020

Bryn Gatland drop goal gives Highlanders win in front of 20,000 fans


WELLINGTON - Replacement Bryn Gatland slotted a 79th minute drop goal to give the Otago Highlanders a 28-27 victory over his father Warren's Waikato Chiefs side as professional rugby union resumed after a three-month COVID-19 shutdown on Saturday.

The drop goal provided an electric finish to the first match of New Zealand's Super Rugby Aotearoa which attracted a crowd of about 20,000 and was broadcast to a global television audience.

The hometown Highlanders, roared on by thousands of Otago University students in 'The Zoo' section of the indoor stadium, had to overcome two periods with just 14 men after Vilimoni Koroi and Jona Nareki were sinbinned for dangerous tackles.

The game was regularly halted for a high number of penalties called under stricter interpretations around the tackle.

Highlanders captain Ash Dixon scored the first try of the competition, while Koroi and Nareki were perilously close to becoming the first players to receive red cards after dangerous tackles in each half.

The Chiefs were kept in the game through Damian McKenzie's boot as he converted four of his side's penalties, while the fullback gave the visitors a 27-25 lead with two minutes remaining through a drop goal.

The Highlanders, however, managed to set up field position just inside Chiefs territory from the restart and Gatland calmly slotted home the winning drop kick from almost 40 metres to send the passionate home fans into delirium.

The competition has been organised by New Zealand Rugby after the main Super Rugby competition, which also involves teams from Australia, South Africa, Argentina and Japan, was halted in mid-March to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus.

New Zealand is on the brink of eliminating the virus with no active cases and the government lifted virtually all COVID-19 restrictions earlier this week.

That allowed the competition to resume with no limits on crowd sizes. Sunday's game at Eden Park between the hometown Auckland Blues and Wellington Hurricanes has sold out.