Rule changes make an impression in Super Rugby Aotearoa

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — There were no red card replacements, and no need for golden point extra time. But the rule variations being applied in New Zealand’s domestic Super Rugby tournament this season made themselves felt in the opening match in Dunedin on Saturday.

The Highlanders beat the Hamilton-based Chiefs 28-27 with a late dropped goal in regulation time. There was no need for the application of a sudden death tiebreaker and no player received the ultimate penalty sanction of being sent permanently from the field.

New rules would have allowed such an offender to be replaced after 20 minutes in a first for professional rugby.

There were two yellow cards against the Highlanders which reduced them to 14 men for 10-minute periods in both halves. The first was for a dangerous tackle and the second for a challenge on a player in the air, both unremarkable offenses.

Refereeing of the breakdown area was clearly innovative and yielded many penalties, more than 30 in the match. Referees have been urged to take rigorous control of the breakdown in order to speed up the match and make it more attractive to fans, though these could appear to be competing initiatives.

Many of the rulings around breakdowns were stringent - if a player wasn’t demonstrably onside he was determined to be offside - and zero tolerance did little to speed up the game.

Ball carriers who were able to drive through the area of the breakdown were often deemed to have gone too far beyond the point at which they should have released the ball. Neither side seemed entirely at home with novel interpretations.

But the game proceeded reasonably easily and without contention. The first yellow card was for an obvious lifting tackle by Highlanders debut fullback Vilimoni Koroi on Naitoa Ah Kuoi. The second came when Jona Nareki up-ended Damian McKenzie in the air.

Penalties came thick and fast at some stages and referee Paul Williams chided players for “not adapting.” But the game was exciting and there was a warning to teams of the danger of retaining possession too long in their own halves.

A capacity crowd of more than 22,000 pressed into the Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin. For the past three months New Zealand sports stadiums had fallen silent because of the coronavirus pandemic.

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More AP sports: https://apnews.com/apf-sports and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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