The Chiefs broke their sequence of draws by beating the Melbourne Rebels 22-16 in a tightly-contested Vodacom Super Rugby match in Hamilton on Saturday.
After drawing with the Vodacom Bulls and the Toyota Cheetahs in South Africa, the Super Rugby champions will be pleased to have picked up the four points that maintain their challenge in the New Zealand conference and on the overall log. However, as the scoreline would suggest, they were given quite a fright in the process and were far from convincing.
Indeed, when with five minutes to go they were being penalised metres from their own line, and had to set themselves for a sequence of defensive scrums in good attacking positions for the Rebels, it looked distinctly like the Melbourne team might score their first win over these opponents and in New Zealand.
That they weren’t able to press home the advantage they held when a yellow card was brandished at Chiefs player Pauilisi Maku five minutes from the end, might have been down to their own poor decision when they elected to take a tap penalty rather than take another set scrum. The Rebels had outscrummed the Chiefs and might have been more composed than they were with the tap, where they surrendered possession when the ball was spilled in front of the Chiefs' posts and flyhalf Gareth Anscombe was able to clear.
The Rebels did get a bit of possession after that, but they were never as close to the line again, and the threat was averted for a home team that showed clear relief at the final whistle. Perhaps it was because of the way they were stretched in their two matches in South Africa, but the Chiefs looked out on their feet at the end and a better team would probably have put them away. So it goes without saying, the champions have much work to do if they want to retain that status.
The Rebels could kick themselves though, for apart from the decision to take the tap instead of the scrum, Jason Woodward also missed a kick that was fairly regulation by his standards and would have had the visitors just three points behind in the final minutes when the Chiefs were giving away penalties with seeming impunity.
That the Chiefs won the game was down entirely to a strong start. In fact, the strength they showed in the first quarter might have been their undoing, for up until that point everything pointed towards the big win that some had predicted beforehand.
The Chiefs had all the possession and territory in the early minutes, with Anscombe kicking a penalty after three minutes and then another after seven to make it 6-0. The Chiefs continued to camp in the Rebels territory and continued to force errors, which they capitalised on with another three pointer to Anscombe to make it 9-0.
Anscombe was, of course, playing as the No 10 in the place of the injured Aaron Cruden. He doesn’t have the flash of Cruden, but Anscome is reliable, and he can occasionally also produce moments of inspiration in general play, such as the great break that sent lock Michael Fitzgerald in for what was to be his team’s only try.
The conversion made it 16-0 and then another Anscombe penalty put the Chiefs up 19-0 as the scoreboard operators struggled to keep up. That though proved to be the last time they were troubled on the Chiefs side of the sheet for some while, for from then on the Rebels’ growing ascendancy in the battle for possession began to take toll on the hosts.
Two Woodward penalties cut the deficit to 19-6 at the break, but the telling statistic at halftime was the 65 per cent domination of possession by the Aussie outfit. And the scoreboard ascendancy began to creak for the Chiefs soon after halftime when Shota Horie went in for a try that cut the deficit to six points.
The game was a near carbon-copy though of the one the day before in Brisbane, where the Reds did everything but score in the second half, and the Chiefs should be commended for their defensive effort that enabled them to escape with a six-point win on a day where they really should have lost. While there is truth in the old saying that winning when you should lose underlines championship ability, there are way too many holes in the Chiefs' game for them to be sleeping easy ahead of some of the tough matches that lie ahead.
Chiefs 22 – Try: Michael Fitzgerald; Conversion: Gareth Anscombe; Penalties: Gareth Anscombe 5. Melbourne Rebels 16 – Try: Shota Horie; Conversion: Jason Woodward; Penalties: Jason Woodward 3.