Cool Chiefs come home on Cruden's boot
An irresistible object that is the outstanding Chiefs rugby machine overcame the immovable force that is the Sharks defence to claim a 24-22 Investec Super Rugby win in New Plymouth on Friday.
Three second half penalty goals to first five-eighths Aaron Cruden, who resumed goal-kicking duties for the side, proved crucial in the end for the Chiefs. The Sharks, down by nine points in the last 10 minutes, came back to score a converted try and lift the collective heart rates around the ground.
But in deciding to turn down a penalty goal chance with two minutes remaining, the Chiefs demonstrated a coolness in deciding to tap the ball and keep it in hand to deny the Sharks a breakout chance.
It was a measure of the telling depth in the Chiefs side that although knocked off their usual style of game, and hard hit on the injury front, that they were able to vary their game, albeit after some wobbles, to play a more controlled style to benefit from Cruden ticking the scoreboard over with his penalty goals.
The leaders stood up for the Chiefs: lock Brodie Retallick a constant in driving play and pulling off a key steal in a maul, No.8 Michael Leitch racing around in covering and taking ball up; flanker Sam Cane leading in contesting the breakdown in a great battle with Sharks rival Keegan Daniel.
However, the Sharks showed their own durability when down by eight points going into the last 10 minutes. They lifted the tempo to suit their own game and when securing a lineout in the 22m area it was inevitable that a lineout drive would be taken, and it was equally inevitable the try would result and it was replacement prop Chiliboy Ralepelle who scored.
But it wasn't only their forwards. First five-eighths Garth April was outstanding, scoring a superb solo try and several times taking the ball up. As the pressure mounted fullback Willie le Roux was in the line often linking with midfielders Paul Jordaan and Andre Esterhuizen – constant dangers who, in the overall scheme of things were under-utilised in that style.
Earlier, centre Seta Tamanivalu, back on his home ground, celebrated with a superbly taken try 49 seconds after the start. From a lineout take, the ball was moved to second five-eighths Anton Lienert-Brown who slipped a short pass on Tamanivalu coming back against the grain.
That opened up the defence and he carved through to score beneath the posts.
The Chiefs made many uncharacteristic errors, many of them appearing to stem from miscommunication in calling for high balls sent their way in bulk.
Eventually settled play, resulting from penalty chances in the Sharks 22m area, saw the line pounded and when there was no way immediately clear, the ball came out and Cruden flung a long ball to the left flank where Leitch was waiting unmarked to touch down in the corner in the 23rd minute.
The Sharks were undeterred and took comfort from their lineout maul which when applied twice in succession from penalties saw hooker Kyle Cooper drive over for a 28th minute try.
Lifted by that effort the Sharks made use of their kicking game to get back into the Chiefs 22m area and while an attempted lineout drive was undone, a ruck was created and April seized the moment to sidestep his way past Cruden and the defence. He beat Damian McKenzie on the outside and sped to the line for a superb five-eighths' try.
It became a contest of styles and will in the second half and it was the Chiefs who demonstrated why they top the points table with their adaptability the key in the end.
Scorers: Chiefs 24 (Seta Tamanivalu, Michael Leitch tries; Aaron Cruden, con, 4 pen) Sharks 22 (Kyle Cooper, Garth April, Chiliboy Ralepelle tries; April 2 con, pen). HT: 15-15