Chiefs battle past Sharks, top of table
The Chiefs have consolidated their position at the top of the Super Rugby table with a record seventh victory in a row and a perfect return of three out of three on their overseas tour.
They climaxed their hardest-fought victory to date - an 18-12 win early today (NZ time) over a tough Sharks outfit at Kings Park in Durban - with a cheeky try after the final hooter to young replacement halfback Augustine Pulu.
Until then the Chiefs had hung in with their trademark hard-working and efficient defence, clinging to a 10-3 halftime lead that young Sharks first-five Patrick Lambie chipped away at with his goal-kicking.
The Chiefs were only able to add one penalty goal of their own in the second spell until Pulu's audacious blindside dab from a driving maul after the fulltime siren had sounded, when the home side no doubt expected him to kick the ball out, instead of beating JP Pietersen in a run to the right-hand corner.
The result put the Chiefs back at the top of the overall table after being temporarily overhauled by South Africa's Stormers on Friday night when they downed the defending champion Reds 23-13 in Brisbane. It followed tour wins over the Force in Perth and the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein and the Chiefs now return home to host the Hurricanes in Hamilton next Saturday night.
The Chiefs, who are five points clear of the Highlanders at the top of the New Zealand conference table, have now conceded just eight tries in eight matches to confirm they have the best defence in the competition - a major turnaround from previous seasons and a major credit not only to new defensive coach Wayne Smith but the work ethic instilled in the players by head coach Dave Rennie and his team.
The Chiefs led 10-3 at halftime after absorbing an early aggressive assault on their line by the home side, holding out against 14 phases in one sustained attack.
But they soon worked their way into the attacking quarter to build phases of their own, with hard working forwards such as No8 Alex Bradley and flanker Sam Cane carrying the ball strongly.
The breakthrough came in the 19th minute when first five-eighth Aaron Cruden was able to stroll over beside the posts untouched from a subtle offload from fullback Andrew Horrell close to the ruck with the hole opened up by a dummy runner coming back on the inside.
Cruden converted his own try and kicked a 30th minute penalty goal to put the Chiefs out to a 10-0 lead, Lambie not replying for the Sharks until right on halftime with a three-pointer of his own.
While the Chiefs' lineout dominated and their scrum held its own, handling errors marred the play of both teams, with the ball made slippery by the hot, humid conditions at Kings Park.
Sonny Bill Williams found he could not employ his usual one-handed offloading game, losing the ball several times as a result.
Possession and territorial statistics turned around in the Sharks' favour in the second half as they dominated the ball and the Chiefs found themselves unable to maintain any continuity, losing the ball through handling errors or penalised by Kiwi referee Garratt Williamson.
However, the home team's only reward against the relentless Chiefs defence were three penalty goals to Lambie, to Cruden's solitary success, to leave the match wide open at just 13-12 to the visitors.
Horrell kicked the Chiefs back into Sharks territory as the home side spilled the ball on attack, Cruden followed with an ambitious and unsuccessful penalty attempt from 53 metres out and the home side desperately tried to spread the ball wide deep in their own half.
The result was an error with a pass thrown over the touchline and the Chiefs predictably hung on to the ball and drove from the ensuing lineout as the final seconds ticked away, but with the hooter sounded Pulu sensed a running opportunity and darted down the blindside to score.
"It's very satisfying to have a tour where you win three from three," Chiefs skipper Craig Clarke said.
"It doesn't happen too often so we're pretty chuffed, but we're just a little bit relieved with the way that game unfolded," he said.
Chiefs 18 (Aaron Cruden, Augustine Pulu tries; Cruden conversion, 2 penalty goals)
Sharks 12 (Patrick Lambie 4 penalty goals).
Halftime: 10-3 Chiefs.