On the face of it, the Chiefs, by virtue of their selections for Friday’s derby match in Cowtown, seemed content to concede home advantage to the Hurricanes for the quarterfinal match up the following week. How else to explain the resting of Damian McKenzie (deal or not with the All Blacks) and the late scratching of Charlie Ngatai, who had suffered with illness through the week but who looked like he wanted to be out there still, tearing apart defences with his trademark power and elusiveness?
It may have been a conclusion that stuck in the craw of the Chiefs coaching staff, but it was a fair enough conclusion to draw, until you factored in the return of Brodie Retallick, the talisman of the Chiefs pack and the stand-in captain of the side on the kind of cold, rain-rashed Hamilton night that made you feel like your bones were rotting. He gave his team an absolute spray in the warm up as they gathered in a circle before heading back up the tunnel. Then he came out and scored the Chiefs first try after five minutes of their trademark graft through the middle of the Hurricanes pack.
It was all about the Chiefs in the opening quarter of this game, a game they had to win by 23 points, and with a bonus, if they wanted to return to FMG Stadium the following week. The Hurricanes fringe defence was non-existent in the opening stages, the only bright spot was a big hit on Marty McKenzie by Jeff Toomaga-Allen. And that was a mismatch for the ages. The Chiefs seemed happy to play the phases and kick long when the gaps weren’t there.
Brad Weber and Toni Pulu both made decisive incisions in the opening exchanges, and for a time, it looked like the Chiefs were capable of tackling the mathematics of this match without too much trouble. Then the Hurricanes made their first foray into the Chiefs backfield – a quintessential Hurricanes break out that almost resulted in a try of their own – and we were all reminded of the visitors’ ability to score from anywhere.
And then, just as the Canes were building into their best attack of the evening, a loose inside ball from Beauden Barrett was plucked out of the sky by Brad Weber who scampered 70 metres to score the Chiefs second try of the night, and their 15th of the season from opposition turnovers. At 14-nil after 19 minutes, the algebraic equation that preceded the game was looking more like basic addition. Or, in the case of Brad Shields, subtraction. His night ended after a breakdown hit from Mitch Karpik moments before the Weber try. Prostrate and defenseless, Shields was an easy target for the tearaway. It remains to be seen whether he will be fit for the playoffs.
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What was concerning early for the Hurricanes was the way the Chiefs were able to harangue their midfield and rush their attack. Ngani Laumape’s first run, coming off a scrum on the Chiefs 22, was shut down with precision by Anton Lienert-Brown, and Lachlan Boshier was quick to draw the defensive penalty from the ensuing breakdown. Everything the Hurricanes tried inside the Chiefs half looked clunky. An attacking bomb from Barrett was diffused, and the Chiefs straightaway stacked the blindside. What happened next was a try for the ages.
Johnny Fa’auli, who had banged his first kick into touch, deftly guided a grubber through the Hurricanes defence, Shaun Stevenson hacked it on twice before regathering and throwing a Laura Langman to Solomona Alaimalo who scampered away to score under the bar. The only question about the score was what was better? Stevenson’s footwork or the fact he skipped Anton Lienert-Brown as the first support runner and found the open Alaimalo?
The more the Chiefs pressured the Canes, and the more points were added to the big scoreboard above the terraces, the worse the Hurricanes looked. Their defence had more holes than murderer’s alibi. About the best kick they made all half was when TJ Perenara kicked the ball into Row 18 to close out the first 40 minutes.
Things didn’t start a lot better for the Hurricanes in the second spell, though most viewers, all the coaches and several players would have gladly taken the third quarter than the fourth, during which the game was reduced to a body count, and the Chiefs were reduced to 14 men.
The Hurricanes looked slightly more composed, that much is true, but still struggled to construct the plays that had seen them race to a 10-0 stretch earlier in the season. Their strike weapons – Ngani Laumape in particular, who was marked with aplomb by Anton Lienert-Brown all evening long – struggled to get through the Chiefs defensive line. On that: Lachlan Boshier and Mitch Karpik, the former who tackled everything that moved and the latter who reminded everyone of his work rate and speed when he chased down a Hurricanes kick and beat Laumape to the ball, were outstanding all evening long. If that is the future of the Chiefs loose forward stocks, then the club is in good hands.
The Hurricanes did score through a rare Ben Lam break down the left and an inside pass to Wes Goosen. It looked as if the Chiefs’ wheels might come of again, as they had done in the second halves of the Highlanders and Brumbies games. It looked likelier still when Blade Thompson crashed over for a try that gave the Hurricanes’ forwards something to smile about during an evening that was mostly gritted teeth and frustration.
And then, madness. Johnny Fa’auli, a man who has been known to rush out of the line and melt opponents in the past, anchored the feet and threw a shoulder straight into the face of the oncoming Goosen. It was a red mist moment which deserved a red card. More will come of that, but it wasn’t the biggest story of the night.
That honour belonged to Liam Messam who ran out for his 177th and final Chiefs game on home soil. The Chiefs needed his presence as Ricky Riccitelli stumbled over the line behind the Hurricanes maul to bring the score to 21-19. Had Jordie Barrett converted the try, and levelled the scoreline, who knows what psychological damage would have been wrought on the man-down Chiefs?
As it was, with Messam doing Messam things, and Boshier and Karpik (and, briefly, Jacobsen) operating with courage and accuracy, it was the Chiefs who were next to score. Karpik this time ripped the ball off Messam in a goal line melee and rolled over to force. It was a try that did more than give the Chiefs some breathing space, it reflected their tough heart.
In the end, the Canes came up short, but so did the Chiefs. Who knows what they could have done with the likes of Damian McKenzie, Sam Cane, and Charlie Ngatai on deck for the evening? That they won the game will still mean plenty to them as they head for the quarterfinal, but the Hurricanes will have home advantage, and will be better for knowing just what the Chiefs will bring at them. If there is anyone left to play, that is.
They were still clearing the bodies off the pitch late that night, as it drizzled in Hamilton, and Liam Messam left a winner.
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