Chiefs battle in rain, seal Super playoffs spot
Chiefs will appear in the Super Rugby playoffs for the third year in a row and they are there because of a defence based on team spirit.
Their refusal to roll over gave them a hard-fought 11-8 victory over the Blues at Eden Park last night and the four competition points they needed to propel them into the post-season.
In wet, windy conditions the back-to-back champions refused to give in against a torrent of possession and territory that favoured the home side in front of an 18,100 crowd.
The Blues made their intentions plain from the outset, turning down a succession of kickable penalties to turn up the heat on the Chiefs with a string of scrums in the red zone.
But despite an initial edge in the scrums and having the rain-laden wind at their backs, the hosts were unable to crack the Chiefs' defence, getting over the goal line three times without reward.
Both Steven Luatua and Charlie Faumuina were held up and Jerome Kaino lost the ball forward over the line in the tackle of Tawera Kerr-Barlow as he charged down the blindside of a 5m scrum.
As the penalties mounted the Chiefs were warned by referee Glen Jackson, but they held it together sufficiently to keep all their players on the field and survived a gruelling opening 15 minutes on defence.
Once they got some ball they could attack with Aaron Cruden making a break and kicking ahead, but mistakes in the testing conditions meant they kept turning the ball over as regularly as the Blues did.
As soon as the Chiefs got a penalty in the Blues' half of the field they went for goal and with his second attempt, in the 23rd minute, Cruden kicked them into a 3-0 lead they held to halftime.
But the second quarter was an eventful one, Chiefs fullback Tom Marshall losing the ball forward in a tackle as he gunned it for the left corner and then, when a powerful forward attack did not bring reward four minutes from halftime, Jackson called for a review of potential foul play.
The replay revealed a no-arms tackle by Ma'a Nonu on Chiefs centre Tim Nanai-Williams and the Blues second-five was yellow-carded. Interestingly, the Chiefs this time turned down the kick and went for a lineout, from which they turned the ball over at the end of a powerful drive.
The Blues lost two players to injury in the first 40 minutes, skipper Keven Mealamu replaced in his record-equalling 162nd Super Rugby appearance and winger Lolaga Visinia also forced off the field.
A change of tactics was immediate for the Blues going into the second spell and they took the first opportunity to kick for goal, with Ihaia West converting a short-range penalty after three minutes.
He had another kick from 37 metres just three minutes later but hit an upright and immediately the Blues were restored to 15 men with the return of Nonu from the sin-bin.
However, it was the Chiefs who struck next. Just two minutes later co-captain Liam Messam snatched a wide pass from West on the halfway line, racing 50m to score from the intercept to make it 8-3 to the visitors.
Cruden missed a relatively easy conversion attempt but the five-pointer was a hammer blow to the Blues, who were again dominating possession in the early part of the half.
He also missed a 50m penalty attempt seven minutes later but it put the Chiefs at the attacking end of the field and eventually he got another chance, making no mistake from a similar distance to push the lead out to 11-3.
But the Blues weren't done and came back to exert more pressure on the Chiefs, who received another warning from Jackson.
In the 65th minute lock Mike Fitzgerald was sent to the sin-bin and after Blues halfback Bryn Hall was held up over the line, replacement winger George Moala scored on the blindside of a 5m scrum.
That was the extent of the damage while Fitzgerald was in the bin, though, and the Chiefs were able to hold out and used up the final minute with a long-range kick at goal from Gareth Anscombe.
Chiefs 11 (Liam Messam try; Aaron Cruden 2 penalty goals) Blues 8 (George Moala try; Ihaia West penalty goal). HT: 3-0