After twice witnessing miraculous last-minute comebacks to salvage draws in South Africa, Chiefs coach Dave Rennie expected another resurgence as the defending champions lost 32-30 to the Brumbies.
The two-time defending champions overcame significant deficits in Pretoria and Bloemfontein in the lead-up to the play-offs but the Brumbies' 22-3 lead after just 25 minutes in last night's qualifying final at GIO Stadium proved insurmountable.
Second half tries to Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Tim Nanai-Williams and a 76th minute effort to Gareth Anscombe highlighted a dogged fight back that fell agonisingly short as the Brumbies advanced to Saturday's second semifinal against the Waratahs thanks to a tense 32-30 victory.
"We got absolutely pumped in the first 20 [minutes], we were pretty disappointing. We lacked physicality in everything we did," Rennie said.
"22-3 was the difference in the game. We played pretty well beyond that, we got ourselves back into the game and the boys showed a lot of character to claw back the lead."
The Brumbies appeared to be ending the Chiefs dynasty in style with a dominant opening half hour that yielded three tries, including two after Nanai-Williams was sinbinned for a ruck infringement in the 5th minute.
Future Wallabies wing Henry Speight suffered the same fate in the 48th minute enabling the Chiefs to also record a brace with a one-man advantage - a development that encouraged Rennie to believe another escape was possible.
"We're an incredibly fit side. We stormed over the Bulls and the Cheetahs at altitude. It highlights the boys are in pretty good nick. We back ourselves to finish over the top of anyone so there's a bit of frustration in the changing room.
"We got a bit of physicality in our defence as well. We got off the line and started belting people. I'm not sure where that was in the first 20.
"We know that we just didn't deliver in that first 20 and that was the difference."
The Chiefs conjured up converted tries at the death on their South African tour but Cruden - who nailed the conversion to share the spoils with the Cheetahs in April after the hosts led 34-10 at the break - was unable to turn Anscombe's dive in the right hand corner to a seven pointer.
Also a hero when the All Blacks maintained their winning streak in Dublin last November thanks to his conversion of a Ryan Crotty try, Cruden's attempt drifted right and the Brumbies were able to close out the game, although Christian Leali'ifano also botched a stress-relieving penalty as the clock wound down.
Although the Chiefs captain's tough kick was on his wrong side, Cruden was still bitterly disappointed at being unable to level the scores and potentially take the game into extra time.
"I was pretty confident. As a rugby player you dream of those moments, the crunch moments and unfortunately it wasn't to be.
"I'm pretty disappointed in myself, letting that opportunity slip."
Rennie, meanwhile, wasn't as critical of his playmaker.
"It shouldn't come down to a conversion to save us. If we'd played the whole 80 like the second 40 we'd have won."
The Brumbies earned a semifinal with the title favourites in Sydney after the Christchurch-bound Sharks edged the Highlanders 31-27 in Durban this morning.
Rennie felt it would be difficult to deny the Waratahs their first appearance in a championship decider since 2008.
"They're tough to beat, they've got a massive pack, they carry hard. They play almost like an African style but there's still that Australian flair in the backs.
"You've got some real size in that group. (Adam) Ashley-Cooper is a pretty under rated centre, (Bernard) Foley's (first five-eighth) been outstanding and you've got the big fella at the back. (Israel) Folau's been a real handful. They've got a lot of strike weapons and they'll be hard to beat."
"The Brumbies will go to Sydney and back themselves but they'll have to be at their best."
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