The Hurricanes beat the Chiefs 21-13 on Saturday to deny the men from Hamilton a home play-off. JON CARDINELLI reports.
The Chiefs came into this clash needing four tries as well as a 37-point winning margin to secure home advantage in the qualifying play-offs. It was always going to be a tough ask, even against a Hurricanes side that was without All Blacks of the quality of Beauden Barrett and Ma'a Nonu.
It was always likely that the Highlanders would host a play-off in Dunedin, following their big win over the Blues on Friday. What has come as a surprise is the result in New Plymouth on Saturday. The Chiefs fell short of their lofty play-off goal, and perhaps more significantly, lost the game.
For a period, it seemed the Chiefs would tick all the boxes. It was evident during the early stages of this contest that they were chasing that 37-point winning margin. They played a tighter, forward-oriented game, and took the three points when they were on offer. After 31 minutes, they were 13-0 up, and the platform appeared to be set.
But one incident would see the momentum shifting in the Hurricanes' favour. Tom Marshall tackled Julian Savea without using his arms, and referee Jaco Peyper punished the Chiefs severely. The Chiefs fullback was sent to the sin bin, and the Hurricanes were awarded a penalty try.
Moments later, James Marshall sliced through the Chiefs' defence, and set up Conrad Smith for a try. Marshall's conversion took the Hurricanes' to a 14-13 lead right before half-time.
Marshall would deliver another blow to the Chiefs' hopes in the 54th minute. The Hurricanes flyhalf intercepted a pass by his opposite number, Marty McKenzie, and scored under the posts. His subsequent conversion took the visitors out to an important eight-point lead.
The Chiefs had their chances, but their poor handling and decision-making often let them down. They also appeared to lack attitude in the second half, and one wonders what this defeat will do to their confidence before the knockout game next week.
The Hurricanes clinched the New Zealand conference title and top spot last week, and had nothing to play for in terms of log position. And yet, they never relented in this contest, be it on attack or defence.
They finish the league having won 14 out of 16 matches. They will enjoy a break next week before hosting a semi-final in Wellington the week thereafter. Back to full-strength, they will be tough to topple in the Kiwi capital.
Chiefs – Try: Bryce Heem. Conversion: Marty McKenzie. Penalties: Marty McKenzie (2).
Hurricanes – Tries: Penalty try, Conrad Smith, James Marshall. Conversions: Marshall (3).
Chiefs – 15 Tom Marshall, 14 Bryce Heem, 13 Charlie Ngatai, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 James Lowe, 10 Marty McKenzie, 9 Brad Weber, 8 Maama Vaipulu, 7 Michael Leitch, 6 Liam Messam (c), 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Matt Symons, 3 Ben Tameifuna, 2 Quentin MacDonald, 1 Pauliasi Manu.
Subs: 16 Rhys Marshall, 17 Siate Tokolahi, 18 Jamie Mackintosh, 19 Michael Fitzgerald, 20 Mitchell Crosswell, 21 Augustine Pulu, 22 Andrew Horrell, 23 Damian McKenzie.
Hurricanes – 15 Nehe Milner-Skudder, 14 Cory Jane, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Rey Lee-Lo, 11 Julian Savea, 10 James Marshall, 9 TJ Perenara, 8 Victor Vito, 7 Callum Gibbins, 6 Brad Shields, 5 Mark Abbott, 4 Jeremy Thrush, 3 Ben Franks, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Reggie Goodes.
Subs: 16 Brayden Mitchell, 17 Chris Eves, 18 Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, 19 James Broadhurst, 20 Ardie Savea, 21 Frae Wilson, 22 Willis Halaholo, 23 Sam McNicol.