The Chiefs survived a late comeback from the Western Force to win their Vodacom Super Rugby encounter by the slimmest of margins, taking the match 22-21 in Pukekohe on Friday.
In trying conditions, the Chiefs struggled to maintain their momentum and watched as the Force came back from 22-11 down to score a late try and threaten to take the game away from them.
They almost did as well, with South African import Sias Ebersohn missing a long-range penalty five minutes from the end before the Chiefs launched a final assault, but Ebersohn will also not be the most popular man in the Force team, as when the visitors got the ball with time up on the clock, he inexplicably kicked the ball in his own 22, allowing the Chiefs to take ball and end the game by sending the ball into touch.
Still, it was a brave performance by the Australians, who looked outgunned for most of the match but had enough heart to get themselves within a whisker of winning the game.
They made the perfect start when a turnover ball was booted through by winger Patrick Dellit in the fourth minute and toed ahead twice before he collected and scored to give the Perth side a wonderful opener to take the lead.
But from there it was all Chiefs as the home side adapted better to the wet and cold night to see Aaron Cruden – a late replacement for Gareth Anscombe – put the Chiefs on the board with a penalty.
Lelia Masaga gave the home side the lead when he was on the end of a beautifully crafted move, going through several pairs of hands before the speedster sprinted down the touchline to score in the corner.
Cruden’s boot proved decisive as he added three more penalties in the first half to two by Jayden Hayward to see the Chiefs into the break with a healthy 19-11 lead.
The second half started well for the home side, as Cruden turned pressure into points and stretched the lead with another penalty, but just as the Chiefs looked as if they were cruising to victory, the Force upped the ante and came right back into the game.
A penalty on the hour mark by Hayward brought them to within eight points and then the Force's talisman, Nick Cummins aka the “Honey Badger”, broke through a tackle to set his team on the front foot with a lovely break.
From the recycled ball, the Chiefs' defenders were all at sixes and sevens and it wasn’t long before Dellit received the ball again for his second try.
The successful conversion meant a one-point scoreline and while the Chiefs were heavily on the attack for a large part of the last 20 minutes, and despite Force prop Kieran Longbottom getting yellow carded for repeated infringements at the scrums, the defending champions couldn’t find the scoring opportunity that would guarantee the victory.
They did hold out in the end, though, and will walk away relieved on a difficult evening when things didn’t gel for them. But they will know they will have to up their game if they are to defend their title this year, because against better teams this performance would have been very costly indeed.
Chiefs – Try: Lelia Masaga. Conversion: Aaron Cruden. Penalties: Cruden (5).
Western Force – Tries: Patrick Dellit (2). Conversion: Jayden Hayward. Penalties: Hayward (3).