Knockout rugby has a way of creating unlikely heroes.
With the stakes heightened and the intensity lifting, all it takes is one moment to completely shift the situation.
In the Chiefs’ 29-20 win over the Queensland Reds in Hamilton on Saturday evening, Pita Gus Sowakula found himself at the centre of those moments.
Sowakula was initially listed in the reserves, but with Luke Jacobson not at 100 per cent due to illness, the two-test All Black was elevated into the starting side and was in the middle of several of the game’s key moments – for better or worse.
But it will be his 75th-minute try from close range that the 15,500 in attendance will remember – extending the lead to nine points and giving the hosts some breathing room in what had been a tense game.
The only team to beat the Chiefs in the regular season, the Reds made it clear they weren’t daunted by the away trip against the competition leaders, and took their early opportunities.
There was a noticeable lift in physicality as the sides looked to assert dominance up front and with their defence, and it was the kicking games that led to many of the point-scoring opportunities.
For the Chiefs, it was the territorial battle that saw them gain some ascendancy, with longer kicks and finding the turf more often. The Reds meanwhile found a hole in the Chiefs’ armour with targeted kicking.
The visitors kicked three 50/22s, two of which led to tries.
The first of those came off the back of a blunder at the back of a scrum 5m out from the Reds line. Miscommunication from Sowakula and halfback Brad Weber saw the ball just sitting there for Reds halfback Tate McDermott to collect.
He sent No 8 Harry Wilson away, and he found wing Josh Flook who launched a 50/22. It led to a Suliasai Vunivalu try, with the Reds stunning the home crowd.
Another error from Sowakula again put the side under pressure – this time a flick pass inside his own 22 drifting forward – but the Chiefs held on.
The hosts finally got on the board from the boot of Damian McKenzie, who kicked a penalty after being targeted with two very late hits from the Reds defence.
That continued to be the tactic for the Chiefs when they had the opportunities - turning down kicks to the corner to bank points and keep the scoreboard ticking over.
It wasn’t until the last play of the first half that the Chiefs were able to finish a period of running rugby with a try – Emoni Narawa going over in the corner after being denied for a push in the back early in the contest – to take a 16-10 lead into the break.
The Reds had shown they were up for the fight and that trend continued in the second half. Both sides had to work for everything, and the Reds having success at the scrum was a big bonus as they earned a few pressure-relieving penalties.
A well-kicked 50/22 from first-five Tom Lynagh soon after he slotted a long penalty saw the Reds take the lead again with 20 minutes to go, as Vunivalu scored his second try in the following phases.
But the Chiefs edged ahead again in the 70th minute from a fifth McKenzie penalty, before Sowakula put the side through to the semifinals.
Chiefs 29 (Emoni Narawa, Pita Gus Sowakula tries; Damian McKenzie 2 cons, 5 pens)
Reds 20 (Suliasi Vunivalu 2, Harry Wilson tries; Tom Lynagh con, pen)