In a test match style arm wrestle, the Chiefs, fresh back from an arduous South African tour, defeated the top of the table Hurricanes 16-8.
It was billed as the match of the season. With 15 All Blacks on display in the respective starting fifteens, it was the first- and second-ranked sides of the 2009 season at a sold out Waikato Stadium.
For the winner, a guaranteed top four berth, and a likely home semi final.
With the two most prominent attacking arsenals of the competition on show, many expected a high scoring freewheeling affair.
After all, you had the All Black first choice full back, wing, second five eighth (inside centre), fly half and both front line test outside centres on the park.
But amidst a test match like atmosphere of over 25,000 people, it wasn’t the predicted open affair. In hindsight, it was never going to be.
Both sides knew what was on stakes, not only in the Super 14, but with the holy trinity of All Black coaches sitting in the stands; there were test spots at stake.
Often when you see such key clashes, it is the defence and the fear of not losing that dictates the match; more than the desire to throw the ball around. For the Chiefs in particular, their defence has been highlighted as a potential weakness.
Tonight, that defence was of title winning class.
The Hurricanes had the better first half, dominating the tackle in the first quarter and showing why they have the best ruck retention of the competition.
Despite the slippery conditions, the Hurricanes runners, led by their All Black midfield of Conrad Smith and Ma’a Nonu, did make early inroads into the Chiefs defence.
But they could not convert. While winger David Smith did cross in the corner, the Chiefs defence was a notch up on what it had been seen so far this season.
The second half saw a different Chiefs team come out.
Quite simply, they were outstanding. They shifted their game plan, and scrambled with far more intensity than the Hurricanes.
The tactical awareness and patience that has been shown by the Chiefs this season has grown with time, and on this display it will take a very polished performance to take them down.
Especially in front of their faithful supporters.
The Chiefs second half assertion on the Hurricanes was led by their tight five. The only such New Zealand team not to have a test player in their front or second row is outplaying their more decorated opponents week after week.
They kept the Hurricanes scoreless in the second half.
Chiefs captain Mils Muliaina, who re-signed with the NZRU this week, was understandably happy. But there is a stoic determination about the New Zealand sides this year, and there was a feeling that there will not be celebrations in Waikato until he hoists the title.
“Yeah, it was very gutsy, it is not hard to get up and excited when coming home to a crowd like this,” Muliaina explained.
“It was pretty greasy, we needed to get territory, and show patience. We’ll enjoy tonight, but we know we have a tough game next week.”
For Rodney So’oialo, the disappointment was clear. The captain and All Blacks number eight had a poor game by his standards, with his lowlight being twice handed off in tackles.
“The chiefs played very well, and showed why they are the top team,” So’oialo said after the match.
“At the breakdown it was pretty tough, the conditions didn’t help, but we had no excuses, the Chiefs played too well.”
“We missed a lot of opportunities, in crucial games like this, you’ve got to take them, and we didn’t.”
Stephen Donald, who has looked increasingly assured this season, would be challenging Dan Carter for the All Black playmakers role even if the Crusaders pivot was fit and playing this season. His second half try where he broke the Hurricanes vaunted defensive line was decisive.
“Yeah, she’s already pretty brutal against the Canes, we were tired and haven’t been having the best sleeps this week,” Donald remarked after the game.
“In the second half, we found that it was pretty greasy, so we changed tactics, and with players like [Callum] Bruce and Mils [Muliaina] we played a smarter kicking game as the match wore on”.
“Tonight was important; we haven’t won a grind out like this all year. We’ve got to keep proving people wrong.”
“But the rewards are worth it.”
If the Chiefs keep winning like this, and they beat the Brumbies in Hamilton and host a final, the rewards could be the maiden Super 14 title for this outstanding team.
Con: Donald 1
Pen: Donald 3
Tries: D Smith
Chiefs – Hurricanes
Territory: 56 - 44
Possession: 52 - 48
Breakdowns: 72 - 63
Breakdown T/O: 5 - 4
Infringements: 15 - 16
T/O conceded: 24 - 26
Missed tackles: 23 - 21
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