Champion Chiefs beat Blues to make playoffs
The champs are alive, and in the process, the Chiefs have killed off the Hurricanes' and Blues' faint Super Rugby playoff hopes.
It's been far from vintage from the Chiefs this year but a typically gritty 11-8 win over the Blues, which ended the hosts' six-game unbeaten run at Eden Park, at least ensures they get a chance to defend their crown.
Eight wins from 16 games highlights the Chiefs' struggles. This victory was ugly but for now they won't care. The farewells for Mahonri Schwalger, Tanerau Latimer, Bundee Aki and Asaeli Tikoirotuma continue for another week at least.
Liam Messam's 50-metre intercept try, from an attempted Ihaia West inside ball, 10 minutes into the second spell was the difference on the score sheet. But it was the Chiefs' defensive defiance that saw their quest for a third successive title stay alive.
Referee Glen Jackson finally lost patience with the Chiefs' repeated infringements and sent lock Mike Fitzgerald to the bin. That opened the door for the Blues with a well worked blindside move sending George Moala over in corner with 11 minutes remaining and just three points deciding the crucial outcome.
But it was all too predictable as the Blues' handling errors at the death allowed the Chiefs to somehow hold on.
The Blues, like the Hurricanes, now have no hope of making the top six. Ultimately, the Auckland-based franchise will feel the early-season loss in Johannesburg cost them that chance.
Despite the miserable conditions and greasy ball tonight, the Blues were defiant; their tactics clear from the outset. Intent on chasing an almost mythical 39-point winning margin in order to reach the playoffs, they turned down four shots at goal in the opening 10 minutes. Steven Luatua and Brendon O'Connor were held up, and a try-saving tackle from Tawera Kerr-Barlow forced Jerome Kaino to lose the ball over the line.
It was trademark resilience from the Chiefs - the same collective defensive effort which carried them to successive titles. Defence is about attitude and the visitors turned up with the required mindset.
Having been consistently repelled in their opening onslaught, the Blues then set about being their own worst enemies, though they weren't helped by the losses of Keven Mealamu to another (yes another) troublesome calf injury and Lolagi Visinia inside the first 22 minutes.
In possibly his last game for the Blues, Ma'a Nonu's yellow card - for a shoulder charge on Tim Nanai Williams - would also have raised Sir John Kirwan's blood pressure. It was unnecessary, though didn't directly cost his side any points.
Attempting all out attack was always going to be risky in the middle of winter. And so it proved as the Blues' outside backs - Tevita Li guilty on two occasions - made repeated errors. Lineout delivery was also scrappy. In general, without go-forward being earned first, execution across the board was largely absent.
The Chiefs weren't much better with Tom Marshall losing the ball five metres out after Kerr Barlow's probing break. They were also fortunate to avoid a yellow card after conceding eight first-half penalties. Strangely, Aaron Cruden also opted to turn down two shots at goal, leading only 3-0, despite a win being enough to secure a top six berth.
Messam's intercept would prove to be the defining moment, enough to see his side through despite a late fightback from Kirwan's men.
Chiefs 11 (Liam Messam try, Aaron Cruden pen 2) Blues 8 (George Moala try Ihaia West pen). HT: 3-0
AS IT HAPPENED