Defending champions the Waikato Chiefs scraped into the Super XV playoffs with a tightly fought 11-8 victory over the Auckland Blues yesterday.
The Chiefs needed a win in the final match of the regular season to make the top six and keep alive their dream of securing three Super XV titles in a row.
They did it with a strong defensive effort against a committed Blues outfit who had little to play for, but came close to derailing their North Island rivals’ campaign.
The win means the Chiefs are definitely in the top six, although they must await the outcome of other matches to determine if they will finish fifth or sixth.
“It was extremely hard work,” Chiefs captain Aaron Cruden said. “The boys showed a lot of character. There’s been a lot of doubters, but within our circle we’ve kept the faith and it’s paid off.”
While the Chiefs have endured a season marred by inconsistency and poor form, Cruden said they are going into the finals full of confidence after two wins in a row.
“Last week was a step forward and this week is a massive step forward,” he said. “There was a bit of fear coming into this game, it could have been the end of the season, but we stuck it out to win.”
The Blues went into the game with a mathematical chance of making the finals, needing to beat the Chiefs by at least 38 points.
It was never a realistic prospect, particularly when wind and driving rain prevented them from playing a running game.
They toiled relentlessly in the opening stages, crossing the line three times, only to have tries denied when the dogged Chiefs defense held them up and prevented them grounding the ball.
The Chiefs, needing only a win, were content to go into the break leading 3-0 through a Cruden penalty.
The Blues leveled with a Ihaia West penalty just after the restart, but the young pivot then gifted the Chiefs a try when Liam Messam intercepted his pass and sprinted away for a five-pointer.
The hosts narrowed the gap to 11-8 when a period of sustained pressure resulted in a George Moala try.
They kept up the attack until the final two minutes, when Chiefs prop Ben Tameifuna won a penalty that allowed his side to wind down the clock and claim victory.
BRUMBIES 47, FORCE 25
Matt Toomua scored a hat-trick of tries as the ACT Brumbies powered into the Super XV playoffs with a barnstorming win over the Western Force in Canberra yesterday.
It was a winner-takes-all Australian derby with both teams level on 40 points and needing to win to take their place in next week’s playoffs.
The Brumbies, twice winners of the southern hemisphere provincial championship, will have to wait until the result of the Otago Highlanders’ match today with the Canterbury Crusaders to see whether they keep hold of fourth place and a home playoff next week.
The Highlanders must beat the Crusaders in Christchurch to deny the Brumbies fourth place.
Wallaby back Toomua was the hero of the Brumbies’ bonus-point win, scoring three of his team’s seven tries.
Other tries went to Jesse Mogg, Joe Tomane, Tom McVerry and impressive winger Henry Speight. Christian Lealiifano kicked three conversions and two penalties.
It was the first time the Brumbies have won in the last round of matches since 2007.
Last year, the Brumbies suffered a shock loss against the Force in Perth which cost them an all-important top-two finish.
The Brumbies’ win was never in doubt and after leading 21-6 at halftime, the hosts went on with the job, winning the second half 26-19. They clinched their four-try bonus point just four minutes after the resumption.
It was the Brumbies’ biggest win of the season and puts them in great heart for next week’s playoff.
It was a sad end for the Force, who were bidding for their first Super XV finals campaign and they finished with three tries to Pek Cowan, Chris Tuatara-Morrison and Zack Holmes.
“To get a score like that in the final round when a finals spot is on the line is a really pleasing result,” Brumbies skipper Ben Mowen said. “I think we’ll play the Highlanders next week, the Crusaders will be really strong at home, but we’ll sit back and wait and see.”
Force captain Matt Hodgson said it had been a great season for the Perth-based side, despite the loss.
“We’ve learned how to win consistently, and it’s now just a case of learning how to play those big games like tonight and we’ll improve again next year,” Hodgson said.
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