Rugby: Chiefs show ticker to stay top

By Kris Shannon

Chiefs 24 Sharks 22
Seta Tamanivalu breaks away for the opening try in the Chiefs' win over the Sharks. Photo / Getty
Seta Tamanivalu breaks away for the opening try in the Chiefs' win over the Sharks. Photo / Getty

For all the aesthetically pleasing rugby they have played in the first half of the season, the Chiefs were probably due to win an ugly one.

The table-toppers tonight showed they had the spirit to match the spark, managing few highlights but plenty of heart to barely grind out a narrow victory over the Sharks in New Plymouth.

It was perhaps inevitable for their injury toll to finally catch up with the Chiefs. Although they had performed admirably while coping with a shortage of numbers earlier in the campaign, this was the first time their brilliant backline had been severely affected.

With James Lowe, Charlie Ngatai and Tawera Kerr-Barlow all stuck on the sidelines, it should hardly have come as a surprise for the Chiefs to lose some flair. But what would have been more unexpected was off nights for Aaron Cruden and, particularly, Damian McKenzie, with the under-performing play-making duo exacerbating the attack's issues.

Cruden, having been handed the goal-kicking duties, at least separated the sides in the second half from the tee, though the All Black had missed a couple of tricky kicks earlier in the game, similar to the type McKenzie slotted in last week's controversial win over the Hurricanes.

Yet the Chiefs' struggles were hardly all about a lack of verve. Their decision-making was atypically errant and they made too many errors, failing to build enough pressure on a sturdy Sharks defence that helped their side complete an admirable tour to New Zealand.

Still, four competition points strengthened the Chiefs' stranglehold on Super Rugby ahead of a blockbuster against the Highlanders in Hamilton next week, where they will hope to call on a few reinforcements. Whether it was fatigue or a slip in concentration, the Chiefs were tonight simply unable to maintain a fast start that saw them cross twice in the opening 20 minutes and set the game on a seemingly-inexorable path to a familiar conclusion.

After punishing turnovers and ill-discipline from their opponents, the Chiefs' attack began to lose fluidity and the Sharks' defence began to find much more fortitude. Missing a couple of key game-breakers, the improbable passes that had stuck for the Chiefs in previous weeks were now going to ground and some players who had been near-flawless were now making mistakes.

In response, the hosts attempted to establish field position and beat the Sharks at their own kicking game. But errors were again the prevailing result went boot met ball and, like the Chiefs had earlier, the visitors capitalised on their opponents' miscues.

The South African side were allowed to establish a rhythm and execute their own game plan, relying on a strength up front and a dominant set piece to pull themselves back into the match before unleashing a bit of explosiveness of their own.

Having had a chance to readjust at halftime, it was predictable to see the Chiefs largely eschew the kicking game as they opted for patience in the second spell, still unable to unlock the Sharks' defence but doing enough to claim their seventh-straight victory.

Chiefs 24 (Tamanivalu, Leitch tries; Cruden con, 4 pens)
Sharks 22 (Cooper, April, Ralepelle tries; April pen, 2 cons)
HT: 15-15

- NZ Herald

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