The Chiefs became only the fourth team ever to successfully defend their Vodacom Super Rugby title when they won this year's final 27-22 against the Brumbies in Hamilton on Saturday.
It is a win they had to work much harder for than most pundits predicted, and with as little as 15 minutes left on the clock it still looked as if the Brumbies would do the unthinkable and become the first team to lift the trophy after enduring the long flight across the Indian Ocean in the week.
The win was thoroughly deserved, though, as the champions struck the perfect balance between intensity and composure just when the contest needed them to.
For well over an hour the match had all the makings of a Brumbies fairytale. Centre Christian Lealiifano scored all the visitors’ points (equalling Joe Roff’s Super Rugby final points-scoring record) as the odds-defying Canberrans ground their way to a 22-12 lead with the hourglass emptying fast.
The ten-point cushion was a direct result of Jake White’s trademark umbrella-rush defence – the same system that brought the Springboks World Cup glory in 2007.
It applied sufficient pressure to ensure a steady flow of penalties, and Lealiifano had no difficulties converting those into points.
The centre slotted five penalties inside the first hour, but the defensive pressure also gave him the chance to intercept a sloppy ruck clearance just before halftime to also add a try and a conversion behind his name.
The Chiefs, on the other hand, had very little reward for their adventurous approach in that same time period.
They watched helplessly as nothing came of penalties that were tapped and run or missing the touchline. Their All Black flyhalf Aaron Cruden also failed to instil confidence with his shots at goal with the ball flying low and bending violently every time it left his boot.
But he didn’t miss all of the time. Cruden did manage to land four penalties in the first 60 and it meant his side was still in with a shout when the final quarter came around.
Travelling between Pretoria and Hamilton is a gut-wrenching prospect at the best of times. To do that in the lead-up to the most important rugby match of your year is all but impossible, despite what the Brumbies had to say about it.
The last time this journey was undertaken (in reverse) the Bulls gave these Chiefs a record 61-17 thumping.
The first signs of travel-weariness in this match came in the 63rd minute when Liam Messam attacked from the base of a five-metre scrum and had no difficulty taking two tired defenders with him over the chalk to score the home side’s opening try.
That jet-lag could decide yet another Super Rugby final became a probability five minutes later when Bundee Aki glided through a huge gap in the hitherto tight Brumbies defence, before Robbie Robinson repeated the feat seconds later to score the Chiefs’ second try.
This time Cruden was up to the challenge, and his conversion gave the Chiefs the lead for the first time in the match.
It was a slender lead, though, and these Brumbies showed just last week that jet-lag won’t keep them from snatching a win if they are given half a chance in the last ten minutes.
Unlike the Bulls the week before, the Chiefs’ thoughts never came close to leaving the box, though. When given a kickable penalty with nine minutes left they went for the points. Cruden, with his radar now restored, added the three to take the lead out to five points.
From the kickoff they kept their composure brilliantly on defence, while not letting up on the ferocious intensity.
The approach paid dividends when Brodie Retallick won them a penalty inside their 22 by legally contesting a ball on the ground. The relieving kick was all that was needed to get them out of their own territory and onto the winners' podium.
The Chiefs will appreciate this title every bit as much as they did last year’s.
This year they didn’t have the magic of a Sonny Bill Williams or the raw power of a Sona Taumalolo to get crowds excited. They were never really regarded as championship stock, much to the displeasure of coach Dave Rennie at times.
But here they are: Super Rugby champions for 2013, and every bit as worthy as any team ever.
The Brumbies won’t be too dismayed either. The odds against them proved insurmountable, but only just.
To come this close after enduring so much speaks volumes for the character of what must now be regarded as the best-coached outfit in the southern hemisphere.
CHIEFS - Tries: Liam Messam, Robbie Robinson. Conversion: Aaron Cruden. Penalties: Aaron Cruden (5).
BRUMBIES – Try: Christian Lealiifano. Conversion: Lealiifano. Penalties: Lealiifano (5).