July 11, 2014
The Chiefs kept alive their hopes of winning three straight Super Rugby titles after they edged the Blues 11-8 to make the Finals Series at Eden Park.
Dave Rennie's charges got the job done in the end as their experience of knockout rugby was evident as the Aucklanders now bow out.
The hosts will wonder what might have been after a strong start but a pre-game task of winning by 38 points was always the stuff of dreams.
The Blues set their stall out early in miserable conditions as they snubbed three and instead looked for seven with the wind in their favour.
Steven Luatua went close with a carry before back-row colleague Jerome Kaino was denied a score after excellent work from Chiefs scrum-half Tawera Kerr-Barlow saw him wrap his boot around the number eight to dislodge the ball out of the Blues man's grasp. It was a quite superb.
Remarkably the Chiefs held out the Blues for 13 minutes in Auckland before they finally managed to escape their own 22, then looking up at the scoreboard for the early psychological fillip. On 21 minutes they could even have gone ahead but for Aaron Cruden's long-range kick dropping short.
At this point the Blues had lost Keven Mealamu and Lolagi Visinia to injury as James Parson and George Moala emerged, but their first sight of the game would be Cruden lining one up again after Francis Saili was offside, this time Cruden making no mistake for a 3-0 lead.
It should have been an eight-point lead soon after when Kerr-Barlow's break set up Tom Marshall with the line at his mercy. However, the full-back's attempted offload when he possibly could have used the conditions to slide over went forward and Blues survived but would have to see out the final four minutes of the first-half with fourteen men when Ma'a Nonu was yellow carded for a no-arm tackle on Chiefs outside centre Tim Nanai-Williams.
The second-half saw a change in mindset from the Blues as a 41-point victory in these conditions was surely not even in their wildest dreams so West levelling after Messam was penalised and they could have been ahead but for a post denying the fly-half minutes later.
But then came the moment of the match which involved that man Messam again, this time the flanker intercepting West's pass on halfway before showing pace to get over the whitewash. Cruden however left the door ajar for the Blues with a conversion miss which left the scoreline at 8-3 on 50 minutes.
Crucially for the Chiefs, their captain and fly-half was on-target with seventeen minutes remaining as he sent over a penalty from distance to leave the Blues two scores down. It was clear who were the champion team on show as the Chiefs had been savvy in defence while putting points on the board.
However they would be made to sweat for their place in the play-offs when an eight, nine, wing move on the blindside saw replacement Moala slide over to set up a grandstand finish. West's difficult conversion hit the post so the hosts would need another try or two penalties to break Chiefs hearts.
But the Super Rugby holders held on and were deserving winners as their streetwise style will strike fear into their upcoming opponent next weekend.