Chiefs are champs again
The Chiefs secured back-to-back Super Rugby titles on Saturday with a 27-22 win over the Brumbies in a thrilling final at Waikato Stadium in Hamilton.
The Chiefs join an elite club of four - along with the Blues, Crusaders and Bulls - as the only sides to have successfully defended the crown since the creation of SANZAR in 1996.
Victory didn't come easily though as the Brumbies held the lead for most of the game, only to run out of steam in the closing stages.
The Brumbies led 16-9 at the interval thanks to an intercept try on the stroke of half-time from centre Christian Lealiifano, who score all of his side's points.
The match went right down to the wire with Chiefs flank Liam Messam and replacement full-back Robbie Robinson scoring tries in the final quarter to give the defending champions the lead for the first time in the 69th minute.
Much was made of the travel factor before kick-off and the Brumbies' hectic schedule over the past fortnight ultimately turned out to be their undoing.
Credit to the Chiefs though, who turned up the pace in the last twenty minutes to wrestle the initiative away from Jake White's team with some fantastic attacking play after patiently defending during long periods of Brumbies pressure.
Lealiifano opened the scoring early on for the Brumbies when Toby Smith was penalised for a high tackle. The Wallaby centre soon extended the lead to 6-0 when Asaeli Tikoirotuma was pinged for a side entry, capping a strong start for the visitors.
Aaron Cruden missed a sitter to leave Chiefs with nothing to show for a prolonged period of possession and the error was punished almost immediately as Lealiifano hit the target again - after Tanerau Latimer played Scott Sio off the ball - to leave the Brumbies 9-0 up at the end of first quarter.
The Chiefs finally got onto the scoreboard when Cruden split the uprights after Scott Fardy went off his feet. The home fly-half soon doubled his tally, after Sam Carter didn't roll away at a ruck, to cut the gap to three.
Cruden levelled the scores around the half-hour mark after Nick White conceded the Brumbies' third consecutive ruck penalty as referee Craig Joubert stamped his authority on the game.
The Brumbies would take a seven-point lead into the break however thanks to Lealiifano's intercept. Tawera Kerr-Barlow threw a high, looping pass which Hika Elliot fumbled. Lealiifano collected the ball and raced home for the game's first try.
The inside centre converted his try to close an intense opening 40 minutes with the Brumbies 16-9 up.
Fardy and George Smith combined to force Kerr-Barlow to hang on and concede the first penalty of the second half, which Lealiifano duly slotted. But Cruden replied in kind after White doesn't release Tikoirotuma, leaving the gap at seven points.
Cruden missed another very kickable penalty but made up for it with a try-saving tackle on Clyde Rathbone. The Chiefs survived a TMO call after the Brumbies pack rumbled over the line but Lealiifano added another three-pointer, after Latimer hit a ruck from the side, to take a ten-point lead into the final quarter.
The Chiefs stormed back into contention though when Messam broke off a scrum and muscled his way past three defenders to score. But again Cruden was off target with a shocker of a conversion attempt to leave the hosts trailing by five at 22-17.
The momentum was now with the home side and Robinson could sprint home for the Chiefs' second try after a great initial break from Bundee Aki, with Tikoirotuma supplying the link.
This time Cruden was successful with the conversion to finally put the Chiefs in front at 24-22 with just over ten minutes to play.
Fardy was off his feet at a ruck to allow Cruden to stretch the lead to five and that's how it would remain after Jesse Mogg failed to find touch with a late penalty.
Man of the match: A mention first for Christian Lealiifano, who was the standout performer for the Brumbies, scoring 22 points. But we agree with the official gong going to Liam Messam, who wins the award for the second straight year. His try turned the tide in the Chiefs' favour.
Moment of the match: Chiefs still had plenty of work to do with 13 minutes left on the clock, but Robbie Robinson's match-winning try took the wind out of the Brumbies' sails.
Villain of the match: No nasty stuff to report.
Tries: Messam, Robinson
Pens: Cruden 5
Pens: Lealiifano 5
Chiefs: 15 Gareth Anscombe, 14 Lelia Masaga, 13 Charlie Ngatai, 12 Andrew Horrell, 11 Asaeli Tikoirotuma, 10 Aaron Cruden, 9 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 8 Matt Vant Leven, 7 Tanerau Latimer, 6 Liam Messam, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Craig Clarke, 3 Ben Tameifuna, 2 Hika Elliot, 1 Toby Smith.
Replacements: 16 Rhys Marshall, 17 Ben Afeaki, 18 Michael Fitzgerald, 19 Sam Cane, 20 Augustine Pulu, 21 Bundee Aki, 22 Robbie Robinson.
Brumbies:15 Jesse Mogg, 14 Henry Speight, 13 Tevita Kuridrani, 12 Christian Lealiifano, 11 Clyde Rathbone, 10 Matt Toomua, 9 Nic White, 8 Ben Mowen (c), 7 George Smith, 6 Peter Kimlin, 5 Sam Carter, 4 Scott Fardy, 3 Ben Alexander, 2 Stephen Moore, 1 Scott Sio.
Replacements: 16 Siliva Siliva, 17 Ruan Smith, 18 Fotu Auelua, 19 Colby Faingaa, 20 Ian Prior, 21 Andrew Smith, 22 Joe Tomane.
Venue: Waikato Stadium, HamiltonReferee: Craig Joubert
Assistant referees: Chris Pollock; Garrat Williamson
TMO: Vinny Munro