Brumbies end Chiefs' season in a thriller
The ACT Brumbies moved a step closer to a third Super Rugby crown by dashing the Chiefs' attempt to secure a record-equalling three-peat with a dramatic 32-30 victory in their elimination final in Canberra tonight.
Buoyed by the potential of avenging their loss in last year's final in Hamilton, the Brumbies extended a proud record against the Chiefs in the Australian capital by backing up their 41-23 win on Anzac Day with a far more significant victory after surviving a bold comeback from the defending champions.
Australia's most successful franchise now faces the challenge of either ending the NSW Waratahs' dreams of celebrating a maiden championship on August 2 - or prolonging the Crusaders title drought to six years by ending their campaign in Saturday's other semifinal.
The Chiefs, seeking their first win at GIO Stadium since 2008, and just third win in nine away games this campaign, came up short, meaning a host of departing players, including veteran flanker Tanerau Latimer plus backs Asaeli Tikoirotuma and Bundee Aki, leave the franchise on a disappointing note.
By exiting the title race, the Crusaders (1998-2000) remain the only franchise to win three consecutive finals - that achievement was never in danger of being matched early as a vibrant Brumbies constructed an ultimately decisive 19-point lead inside 25 minutes of ruthless efficiency.
The Chiefs were thoroughly outplayed for the bulk of the opening half but displayed the resilience associated with their reign by almost forcing the contest into extra time.
Unfortunately Aaron Cruden was unable to slot a sideline conversion after Gareth Anscombe dived across in the corner to set up a finale that hardly seemed possible following the Brumbies initial dominance.
The Chiefs are the most heavily penalised team in the competition and despite coach Dave Rennie appealing pre-match for Craig Joubert not to treat his players by reputation they were a man down inside five minutes after Tim Nanai-Williams was yellow carded for cynical play at a ruck as the Brumbies looked poised to score.
The centre's indiscretion only delayed the inevitable after a secure close range lineout and maul opened up a blind for Nic White to exploit with ease and then the Wallabies halfback initiated the Brumbies second try when he instigated a long range effort from Robbie Coleman after fielding a Dwayne Sweeney chip in his own half.
Christian Leali'ifano, who was kicking at only 49 per cent, slotted both conversions to underscore the Brumbies dominant start.
The Brumbies had 75 per cent possession before Nanai-Williams returned and surprised the Chiefs with an expansive game plan based around the explosive running Henry Speight, an automatic choice for the Wallabies once the Fijian meets residency requirements in September.
Once restored to their full complement there was no respite for the Chiefs who were breached again after repelling 16 phases when Jesse Mogg crossed in the left hand corner.
Starved of possession and trapped in their own half as the Brumbies surged to a 22-3 lead, the Chiefs at least trimmed the deficit when Bundee Aki was unstoppable from close range after the home side were stressed for the first time in the 35th minute.
The Chiefs, who missed 28 tackles in the first half, also survived an onslaught either side of the halftime hooter after the Brumbies turned down a kickable penalty in search of another demoralising seven pointer.
A penalty soon after halftime was an encouraging start but Cruden's real influence was in general play as he set aside first half frustrations with a commanding third quarter as the Chiefs capitalised on the sin binning of Speight for a Nanai-Williams-style infringement in the 58th minute.
Tawera Kerr-Barlow emulated counterpart White by crossing from the resulting penalty and then Nanai-Williams levelled the scores at 25-25 while Speight spectated when he atoned for his down time with a scything run to the corner.
Cruden missed the extras and although Leali'ifano was wide with a handy penalty the Brumbies regained the lead in the 61st minute when Wellington-born flanker Jarrad Butler touched down amid a stunning rolling maul.
Butler's first Super Rugby try had an element of luck as the Brumbies opted against a three pointer because Leali'ifano was being treated for cramp.
He recovered to nail the conversion but the Chiefs refused to yield and had a chance to push a gripping contest into extra time when reserve back Gareth Anscombe squeezed over in the corner.
Cruden needed to convert his toughest kick of the night to square the ledger with 3min 30 remaining but it drifted wide before the Brumbies found field position for the last, crucial, time.
ACT Brumbies 32 (Jarrad Butler, Robbie Coleman, Jesse Mogg, Nic White tries Christian Leali'ifano 3 cons 2 pens) Chiefs 30 (Bundee Aki, Gareth Anscombe, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Tim Nanai-Williams tries Aaron Cruden 2 cons 2 pens) at GIO Stadium. Referee: Craig Joubert. Crowd: 14,284