Ma'a Nonu scored two tries as the Hurricanes beat the Chiefs 22-18 in Wellington on Saturday, writes SIMON BORCHARDT.
The Canes' 11th win in 12 matches takes them 13 points clear of the Chiefs at the top of the New Zealand conference with four rounds remaining. They are also well ahead of the Australian and South African conference leaders and, barring a spectacular implosion, will finish the regular season at the top of the combined log.
The Chiefs, already without injured All Blacks Brodie Retallick and Aaron Cruden, suffered further blows before kick-off when Sonny Bill Williams (back injury) and James Lowe (shoulder) were ruled out. That robbed the visitors of two of their biggest attacking weapons and prevented the much anticipated head-to-head battle between Williams and Ma'a Nonu in midfield.
However, it soon become clear the weakened Chiefs would still pose a big challenge, and while they fell behind early on, they fought back well to lead 13-10 at the break. They then trailed 22-13 with 12 minutes to go, only to score a try and come close to getting another that would have snatched victory.
The Hurricanes started the match well, with Cory Jane botching a try-scoring opportunity after holding on to the ball when he had a three-on-two overlap out wide, but it didn't prove costly for his side, who were awarded a penalty and kicked for the corner. The Chiefs stopped the lineout driving maul, but the Canes went wide to Nonu, who stepped Damian McKenzie and scored under the posts.
McKenzie got the Chiefs on the board with a penalty, but the 20-year-old flyhalf was unable to hang on to a pass from Brad Weber a few minutes later, with an open tryline in front of him. McKenzie and Marshall then exchanged penalties to make it 10-6.
The Chiefs' injury curse continued when their second-choice second row left the field, to be replaced by loose forwards, but they went into the break on a high when Bryce Heem made a clean break and put Charlie Ngatai over for a converted try.
The Hurricanes dominated the early stages of the second half, opting on three occasions to kick for the corner and set up driving mauls. The Chiefs twice conceded penalties for coming in from the side of the maul, but were unable to stop it the third time round, with Ardie Savea going over to make it 15-13.
The Chiefs were then reduced to 14 men after Liam Squire was yellow-carded for a tip tackle on Nonu. The Hurricanes should made that advantage count immediately, but Nonu lost control of the ball while trying to ground it over the tryline.
McKenzie missed a chance to put his side back in front when his penalty attempt went wide, but the Chiefs would have been pleased not to have conceded any points while Squire was off.
The Hurricanes thought they had extended their lead with 15 minutes to go when Marshall dotted down, but the TMO ruled that a pass earlier in the attack had gone forward. However, they did strike a big blow soon after when Nonu intercepted Squire's pass to score his second try.
The Chiefs brought themselves back into the game when Sam Cane went over from a driving maul in the 74th minute, but McKenzie's missed conversion meant his side had to cross the line again.
And while they did, through Augustine Pulu with two minutes to go, the TMO ruled that the Chiefs had knocked on at the preceding ruck. But there did appear to be hands in the ruck from the Canes and they were fortunate not to concede a penalty.
The Chiefs would be given one last chance to attack, from a 5m scrum, but a massive shove from the Canes earned them a penalty that sparked huge celebrations.
Hurricanes – Tries: Ma'a Nonu (2), Ardie Savea. Conversions: James Marshall (2). Penalty: Marshall.
Chiefs – Tries: Charlie Ngatai, Sam Cane. Conversion: Damian McKenzie. Penalties: McKenzie (2).
Hurricanes – 15 Nehe Milner-Skudder, 14 Cory Jane, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Julian Savea, 10 James Marshall, 9 TJ Perenara, 8 Victor Vito, 7 Ardie Savea, 6 Brad Shields, 5 James Broadhurst, 4 Jeremy Thrush, 3 Ben Franks, 2 Motu Matu'u, 1 Reggie Goodes.
Subs: 16 Dane Coles, 17 Chris Eves, 18 Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, 19 Mark Abbott, 20 Blade Thomson, 21 Chris Smylie, Otere Black, 22 Rey Lee-Lo.
Chiefs – 15 Tom Marshall, 14 Hosea Gear, 13 Charlie Ngatai, 12 Anton Lienert-Brown, 11 Bryce Heem, 10 Damian McKenzie, 9 Brad Weber, 8 Michael Leitch, 7 Sam Cane, 6 Liam Messam (c), 5 Michael Fitzgerald, 4 Michael Allardice, 3 Ben Tameifuna, 2 Hika Elliot, 1 Pauliasi Manu.
Subs: 16 Quentin MacDonald, 17 Siate Tokolahi, 18 Mitchell Graham, 19 Liam Squire, 20 Maama Vaipulu, 21 Augustine Pulu, 22 Andrew Horrell, 23 Marty McKenzie.
Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images