Patrick McKendry

Patrick McKendry is a rugby writer for the Herald.

Rugby: Chiefs stand on the brink

Sona Taumalolo of the Chiefs (L) celebrates their win after the Super Rugby Semi Final match between the Chiefs and Crusaders. Photo / Getty Images.
Sona Taumalolo of the Chiefs (L) celebrates their win after the Super Rugby Semi Final match between the Chiefs and Crusaders. Photo / Getty Images.

The organisers of the fireworks display at Waikato Stadium promised to tone down the explosives before the Chiefs lit a match under the Crusaders in winning their semifinal.

The boom and flash of the pyrotechnics had shocked a few present in the lead up to the last game between New Zealand's best teams when they last met in Hamilton on July 6.

On Friday night the blast of flame before kickoff still put out plenty of heat - it could be felt through the window of the media box - and the Chiefs soon carried on a theme in front of a sellout crowd.

They had gone into the match having failed to dominate in their two previous outings - defeats to the Crusaders and Hurricanes away but the mental and physical shift demanded by captain Craig Clarke worked.

Their aggression against the seven-time champions was a key factor in the 20-17 victory. It got out of hand at times - No8 Kane Thompson traded punches with Crusaders prop Wyatt Crockett (an incident put on report by referee Craig Joubert), halfback Tawera Kerr-Barlow was penalised for stomping, and props Sona Taumalolo and Ben Tameifuna did some silly things early on, but the intent served them well.

"We certainly knew we had to be better in that area - be a bit more confrontational - because in the last two round-robin games we haven't been and have been on the receiving end of it," Clarke said. "Just little things, running good lines and being confrontational at ruck time. Just not taking a backward step as a forward pack. You've seen from us during the season that we're good when we do those little things ... we flustered them a little bit - they didn't have it all their own way like they have done."

They will have to harness that fury one more time for Super rugby's grand final against the Sharks on Saturday night because only shocking ill-discipline or a catastrophic form slump will stop them claiming their first title. They will go into the match as favourites having finished second overall and the Sharks sixth. The men from Durban also come to Hamilton by way of Brisbane for a qualifier against the Reds and Cape Town for this morning's 26-19 semifinal victory over the No1 seeded Stormers. The Sharks showed few signs of fatigue as they struck through Louis Ludik and JP Pietersen, with first-five Frederic Michalak kicking two drop goals.

Winning back-to-back away play-off matches has been done only once - by the Crusaders over the Highlanders in 1999 (they beat the Reds in Brisbane in the semifinal). The Sharks will have to win three away matches for the first time. Since the advent of the new format last year, an extra playoff match has been included for teams finishing the regular season third-sixth.

If the Sharks did somehow win the final after crossing the Indian Ocean twice in little over a week it would be an extraordinary effort and a massive surprise.

After Friday night's match, Chiefs loose forward Liam Messam talked of being involved in his side's only other visit to the final - a 61-17 thrashing by the Bulls in Pretoria in 2009. There was a feeling within the team of just being happy to have made it that far, he said. There is no chance of that happening on Saturday night.

The Chiefs, now coached by Dave Rennie and Wayne Smith, in their first year with the franchise, are a different team. There is a harder edge to them and a commitment to excellence. If the Chiefs, or their supporters, needed any further encouragement they could look to the round nine result when they beat the Sharks 18-12 in Durban, keeping the team with the best attacking record in the competition try-less and picking up two five-pointers themselves.

- APNZ

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