The Chiefs booked their first ever appearance in a Super Rugby final when they beat the Hurricanes 14-10 in Hamilton.
The men from Waikato will now await the result of the second semi-final in Pretoria on Saturday to see whether they will host the Crusaders in next weekend’s showpiece or face a tough trip up to the highveld to front the Bulls.
In a typically tense semi-final, it was the Chiefs’ more composed second-half performance that was the difference between the two sides. They played the smarter rugby in the second stanza, while the Canes seemed to get their tactics wrong and failed to seriously test the hosts’ defensive line.
The key moment in the game came when a poor kick from Hurricanes flyhalf Willie Ripia was collected by Mils Muliaina, who started and finished a move in which Sitiveni Sivivatu, who flew past three defenders, and Toby Morland, featured prominently.
The Canes tried valiantly to bounce back thereafter, but had neither the tactical intelligence nor patience to unhinge the Chiefs.
As was the case when the two teams met in their league encounter a fortnight ago, it was a physical battle with some huge hits.
The first half was played at a frenetic pace, with both teams showing a willingness to run the ball from almost any point on the field.
Both teams were uncompromising at the breakdown, while the Canes had the upper hand at the set pieces, particularly at scrum time, where the loss of prop Ben May was clearly affecting the hosts.
The Chiefs had the bulk of the possession early on, but the Canes’ defence was well organised, and for the most part they were able to keep the Chiefs’ flyers quiet.
The Canes got their breakthrough against the run of play when Cory Jane found the powerful Victor Vito hitting the line at pace. He surged over the advantage line and fed the ball to Ma’a Nonu to finish off. Piri Weepu nailed the conversion and the visitors were out to a 7-0 lead.
The Chiefs attempted to hit back with some good percentage rugby, taking the ball upfield with a number of powerful carries from their big forwards.
Colin Cooper’s side were then dealt a harsh blow when John Schwalger was binned for a ruck infringement in the red zone. TV replays proved the prop’s innocence.
Stephen Donald missed the resulting penalty, but the Chiefs finally made their numerical advantage count when Sione Lauaki was found in space out wide.
The burly No 8 thundered down the touchline, handing off both Jane and Rodney So’oialo with ease, before finishing in the corner. Donald’s conversion was good and the scores were level.
The teams were again fairly direct early in the second half, and while the Canes bossed possession, they couldn’t find a way through the Chiefs’ defence with ball in hand, forcing them to turn to the boot. But their tactics backfired as Ripia’s aimless kick led to the Chiefs’ second try.
The Chiefs were in control of the game and the visitors desperately needed a lifeline.
It eventually came with just over 15 minutes to go when they were awarded a penalty near the left touchline. Weepu stepped up and slotted it to cut the Chiefs’ lead to just four points (14-10).
With time running out and heavy fog descending, the Canes threw everything at the Chiefs, and managed to set up a lineout 10m from the their tryline. They rumbled up for 5m, being resisted by desperate Chiefs defenders. Composure was needed to break down the wall, but instead they knocked on just 3m short.
The Chiefs celebrated wildly, while the Canes’ players slumped to the deck.
Many expect them to be making the trip to Loftus next week, but if the Crusaders can defy the odds and down the Bulls, the Chiefs will back themselves to secure their first ever Super Rugby title.
By Andrew Worling