Chiefs top Blues 11-8 to make Super Rugby playoffs
AUCKLAND, New Zealand (AP) — The Chiefs kept alive their quest for a third straight Super Rugby title when they beat the Blues 11-8 in a rain-drenched match to capture a playoffs spot in their last match of the regular season on Friday.
The win lifted the Chiefs from eighth to a temporary fourth place at the start of the final round in which nine teams remained in contention for top-six placings.
The Blues, in ninth place and needing to win by a clear margin of 38 points to have any chance of reaching the playoffs, were assailed by a remarkable series of misfortunes, and became the first team eliminated from the race in the final weekend.
They first lost their captain, flanker Luke Braid, and All Blacks prop Tony Woodcock to injuries before the match began, then lost stand-in captain and hooker Keven Mealamu to a calf injury after only 18 minutes. The injury brought a somber end to Mealamu’s match in which he equaled Wallabies lock Nathan Sharpe’s record of 167 Super Rugby appearances.
The Blues also lost All Blacks center Ma’a Nonu, in his last match for the franchise, to a yellow card late in the first half. But the greatest factor working against them, other than the proven ability of the Chiefs to win critical matches around playoffs time, was the weather which all but washed away any prospect of a high-scoring game.
Auckland has been lashed by violent storms for three days, and the strong winds and torrential rain ensured from the start that the Blues had no chance of achieving the massive scoreline they needed to keep alive their frail playoffs hopes.
They had almost 90 percent of territory through the first 20 minutes, gave up the chance to kick for goal from the six penalties they received in that period, and crossed the Chiefs’ line three times without being able to ground the ball. Twice they had players turned onto their backs by the Chiefs’ outstanding defence, and on the third occasion flanker Jerome Kaino dropped the ball over the line.
The Chiefs weathered that metaphorical storm, then asserted themselves by balancing the ledger of territory and possession, then taking the lead with an Aaron Cruden penalty — the only points of the first half.
Blues flyhalf Ihaia West tied the scores with a 43rd-minute penalty but missed another two minutes later. Flanker Liam Messam then gave the Chiefs their decisive lead with an intercept try from 50 meters out in the 48th.
A Cruden penalty in the 62nd put them ahead 11-3 and they needed that margin when the Blues scored a try through replacement winger George Moala in the 69th. The Chiefs clung to their three-point lead through the last 11 minutes, saved again by resolute defence.
“We probably made harder work of it than we needed to,” Cruden said. “But we knew it was going to be a tough cookie here against the Blues.
“I’m stoked for the boys. They showed a lot of character, especially in that first 20 minutes and we were able to hang on in the end.”
The Blues suffered their sixth straight loss to the Chiefs and finished the season at the bottom of the New Zealand conference, though they stayed in playoffs contention for the length of the regular season.
“I suppose we just left it a little bit late in the season,” said James Parsons, who ended the match as Blues captain. “We shouldn’t have been in this position. We had plenty of chances in other games to win. But the boys showed a lot of character which is great and we’re building towards next year with a young side.”
Chiefs 11 (Liam Messam try; Aaron Cruden 2 penalties), Blues 8 (George Moala try; Ihaia West penalty). HT: 3-0.