The Chiefs sit atop the Super 14 table heading into the final weekend after defeating the Hurricanes 16-8 in the game of the season.
The Chiefs sit atop the Super 14 table heading into the final weekend after defeating the Hurricanes 16-8 in the game of the season in Hamilton on Saturday.
This was a business end game and no mistake. It was fast, tough, skilful and played in a belting local atmosphere among two sets of fans and players acutely aware that this might be a dress rehearsal for the final. It was magnificent, superlative, wondrous… add synonyms as appropriate.
It was advantage Hurricanes initially. They won the early battle at the scrum with a mixture of cool temper and trickery, they won the early battle at the breakdown with numbers and the defence was belligerent in its rushing angles to stifle a probing Chiefs attack.
Fewer opportunities were afforded to the visitors but they took them. Ma'a Nonu found too much space against Callum Bruce and his distribution was key to the Hurricanes efforts. By contrast, Conrad Smith and company gave Stephen Donald and Richard Kahui no space at all, forcing the home side to play too much with the boot.
The Hurricanes also disrupted the ball at source, with Toby Morland given a torrid time. The Chiefs played superbly, but it seemed the Hurricanes came with more specifics in the game plan. Where it went wrong was in the line-out. It was the only part of either team's game not to function and gave away ball in key areas at key moments.
So the Chiefs went quickly to a plan B: keep it moving, and that dashed fast. It worked. The penalty that gave them the lead just before the break owed everything to a series of miraculous offloads in the tackle that kept the movement flowing for nearly two minutes and tempted Conrad Smith offside in front of the poles.
Stephen Donald led the most audacious of counter attacks, helped in no small way by the sheer brilliance of Sitiveni Sivivatu's stepping, just before the break that might have had Lelia Masaga away for a score on early season form – unfortunately the winger looked still a mite ring-rusty after his injury lay-off.
Immediately after the break the Chiefs struck their killer blow with a try by Donald, again sparked by some miraculous ball-handling from his team-mates, starting with Kahui. Try as they did, there was no way the visitors were going to suppress the flair of the Chiefs. Donald slipped a couple of tackles that would have been made earlier in the game; the pace was just too much.
After an early exchange of penalties, the Hurricanes drew first blood. Sione Lauaki once again displayed a fragility under a high ball – neither side dealt well with high kicks in the first half – and from the turnover, Nonu fired a fabulous wide pass to Cory Jane and David Smith, who scampered home.
A ludicrous offside from Neemia Tialata gave Donald the chance to reduce the arrears to 6-8, but that could have been far worse moments later when Weepu made a clean break. Donald failed to tackle the scrum-half but pulled the ball out of his hands.
Then the Chiefs upped the ante with a movement travelling through at least a dozen pairs of hands before Conrad Smith was pinged and Donald gave his side the lead gong into the sheds.
The Chiefs exploded into the second half, with Kahui taking the ball on the short side from the restart ruck and sending Sivivatu away down the right. Inside the ball came to Kevin O'Neill who set the ruck, and then Donald took the ball flat and exploded through the 10-12 channel before stepping Jane to score under the sticks.
The Hurricanes imposed themselves on the game with a tad more structure and earned themselves a couple of penalties, but Ripia's radar was not well-calibrated and as time ticked down, the eight-point margin grew and grew in importance while Ripia's confidence drained. His team-mates' control of the game ebbed away with it.
But what could the Hurricanes have done? Danger lurked at every turn. Kick a ball downfield: Mils Muliaina would terrorise the chasers by running it back. Masaga was irrepressible. Bruce and Donald found their corners to keep the 'Canes pegged back. Liam Messam once again delivered a huge performance in defence, as did O'Neill and Craig Clark.
Both sides came in attack. Sivivatu stepped brilliantly through on a counter but then his greatest failing – the casual ease of his genius – saw the move break down with a loose pass. Back came the 'Canes, with Nonu bursting through, feeding Smith who passed wide to David Smith, who took his eye off the ball to scope his defenders at the crucial moment and spilled a certain scoring pass.
David Smith did the same thing with a high ball moments later and Kahui hacked through but Jane tidied up before launching a counter-attack eventually snuffed out by Sivivatu. Donald's cross-kick then bounced just too far for Kahui.
Attack, attack, attack. Both sides, from all angles and positions. It seems incredible that such a superb match should have such a low scoreline, but 16-8 is how it stayed. The Chiefs now have one foot in the semi-finals, the Hurricanes are staring another anti-climax in the face – it's going to be quite a final weekend!
Man of the match: We want to single out Craig Clark. We want to single out Stephen Donald. We want to single out Ma'a Nonu. But it just seems unfair to leave others out. So we'll give it to all 44 players, and the match officials as well, for delivering a magnificent game of rugby.
For the Chiefs:
Pens: Donald 3
For the Hurricanes:
Try: D. Smith
Chiefs: 15 Mils Muliaina (c), 14 Lelia Masaga, 13 Richard Kahui, 12 Callum Bruce, 11 Sitiveni Sivivatu, 10 Stephen Donald, 9 Toby Morland, 8 Sione Lauaki, 7 Tanerau Latimer, 6 Liam Messam, 5 Kevin O'Neill, 4 Craig Clarke, 3 Ben May, 2 Aled de Malmanche, 1 Sona Taumalolo.
Replacements: 16 Hika Elliot, 17 James McGougan, 18 Toby Lynn, 19 Serge Lilo, 20 David Bason, 21 Mike Delany, 22 Sosene Anesi.
Hurricanes: 15 Cory Jane, 14 Tamati Ellison, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 David Smith, 10 Willie Ripia, 9 Piri Weepu, 8 Rodney So'oialo (c), 7 Scott Waldrom, 6 Victor Vito, 5 Jason Eaton, 4 Jeremy Thrush, 3 Neemia Tialata, 2 Andrew Hore, 1 John Schwalger.
Replacements: 16 Ged Robinson, 17 Jacob Ellison, 18 Bryn Evans, 19 Faifili Levave, 20 Alby Mathewson, 21 Jason Kawau, 22 Zac Guildford.
Referee: Bryce Lawrence (New Zealand)
Touch judges: Vinny Munro (New Zealand), Glenn Newman (New Zealand)
Television match official: Shane McDermott (New Zealand)
Assessor: Glen Wahlstrom (New Zealand)