The Chiefs and Blues played out a 16-16 draw in wet conditions at Eden Park in Auckland, but the result, essentially, scuppers the visitor’s playoff chances as they are nine points behind the Crusaders.
Piers Francis missed a 73rd-minute penalty that would have given his side the win. Moments earlier, some brilliance Damian McKenzie saw Johnny Faauli’s try level the scores at 16-all.
Aaron Cruden’s missed conversion was equally costly in the final tally, as the Chiefs’ playoff chances hang by a thread.
The Blues took a 13-8 lead into half-time thanks to Rieko Ioane’s 30th-minute try and eight points from Francis’ boot. McKenzie’s penalty and try kept his team in the chase.
This match was a Battle Royale; the forwards fought a ferocious battle, while the backs ingenuity kept the scoreboard ticking in an intense New Zealand derby.
However, the rain started to buckle down, late in the first-half, the handling errors mounted as the teams struggled to keep the ball in hand.
The Blues managed to break their 11 games-in-a-row losing streaks against the Waikato franchise, but they have one win and a draw against Kiwi opposition in their last 22 matches.
The draw stops the Blues’ rot of having lost their last 10 against Kiwi opposition and last 11 versus the Chiefs, although, they will not be happy, despite not losing.
The game started with both teams struggling to handle the ball in the wet conditions. Piers Francis and McKenzie traded early penalties before Rieko Ioane broke the deadlock with a well-worked try.
Sonny Bill Williams was a powerhouse in midfield. It was his break in midfield, that started the move for the try.
The ball was recycled quickly from the breakdown, Augustine Pulu sent the ball to Rieko Ioane, on his outside, and put the winger through the space to make it 13-3 after Francis’ conversion, was followed by a 39th-minute penalty.
However, the Chiefs hit back immediately. It all came from another sloppy restart from the Blues. The Chiefs regather the loose ball and set up quick ball.
McKenzie took Nepo Laulala’s pass in midfield and ghosted through forwards Ofa Tu’ungafasi and Patrick Tuipulotu.
Pulu could not cover in time as the 15 raced to the try line.
The fullback, who has been one of the standout performers in Super Rugby this season, beat Scott Scrafton’s tackle and raced to the try line. Pulu could not cover in time as the 15 raced to the try line.
Cruden could add the conversion but the visitors had struck a momentum changing blow just before the break to reduce the gap to five.
Francis and Cruden traded early second-half penalties as the rain started to take effect on the proceedings. The handling errors were rising and the ball was tough to control.
The two teams started kicking for territory, not wanting to make any silly mistakes that would cost them. This only intensified the forward battle.
This only intensified the forward battle. Kane Hames was getting the better of Charlie Faumuina, winning the penalty count 2-1, before Tana Umaga took Faumuina off.
The pressure was mounting, with both sides still mathematically in the hunt for playoff places, the Chiefs more so as the Blues had only beaten New Zealand opposition once in the past 21 matches and were on a losing streak against the Waikato franchise stretching 11 games, back to 2011.
With 12 minutes remaining, Dave Rennie’s men found the breakthrough when Faauli scored in the corner to tie the game at 16 apiece. It started from James Lowe, gathering his own charged down kick.
The Chiefs ran the ball, Lowe gave an offload to a support runner who passed to Liam Messam. The No 8 punched his way up-field, the Chiefs recycled and McKenzie’s joined at first receiver.
His time and awareness were immaculate, seeing the centre out wide and finding him with the cross-kick. Faauli collected the ball on the bounce to finish off a stunning counter-attack.
Cruden, however, could add the touchline conversion, which would have proved more costly, had Francis not pushed his late penalty wide.
Full-time score: Blues 16 (13) Chiefs 16 (8)
Tries – R. Ioane
Pen – Francis (3)
Con – Francis
Tries – McKenzie, Faauli
Pen – McKenzie, Cruden
Referee: Angus Gardner
Assistant Ref 1: Nick Briant
Assistant Ref 2: Angus Mabey
TMO: Glenn Newman
15 Michael Collins, 14 Matt Duffie, 13. George Moala, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 Rieko Ioane, 10 Piers Francis, 9 Augustine Pulu, 8 Akira Ioane, 7 Blake Gibson, 6 Steven Luatua, 5 Scott Scrafton, 4 Patrick Tuipulotu, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 James Parsons (captain), 1 Ofa Tu’ungafasi.
Replacements: 16 Hame Faiva, 17 Alex Hodgman, 18 Sione Mafileo, 19 Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 20 Kara Pryor, 21 Sam Nock, 22 Stephen Perofeta, 23 TJ Faiane.
15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Tim Nanai-Williams, 13 Anton Lienert-Brown, 12 Johnny Faauli, 11 James Lowe, 10 Aaron Cruden (co-captain), 9 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 8 Liam Messam, 7 Sam Cane (co-captain), 6 Mitchell Brown, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Dominic Bird, 3 Nepo Laulala, 2 Nathan Harris, 1 Kane Hames.
Replacements: 16 Hika Elliot, 17 Siegfried Fisi’ihoi, 18 Atu Moli, 19 Taleni Seu, 20 Lachlan Boshier, 21 Jonathan Taumateine, 22 Solomon Alaimalo, 23 Shaun Stevenson