On a night when the Chiefs were full of villains and heroes it was appropriate that Stephen Donald should step up to right a few personal wrongs and nail a late penalty to earn his side a crucial 20-17 Super 14 win over the Waratahs in Hamilton.
Report courtesy Duncan Johnstone, www.rugbyheaven.co.nz.
Donald has endured a difficult start to the year. He was off-song in last week’s loss to the Blues and looked at odds again at times in his side’s first outing at home on Saturday night.
He missed some early goalkicks, botched a few field kicks and then even got forced off injured when he was trying to score a bonus point try late in the seond half.
Somehow he made his way back on to the field in the dying stages. By then the Chiefs had sloppily allowing the Waratahs back from nowhere to 17-all and another disaster loomed. But the Chiefs gained a penalty two minutes from the finish and a bloodied Donald stepped up to slot the difficult angled goal into the wind.
The Chiefs seemed almost as stunned as the Waratahs with the result. To win a second round game is a rare luxury for the Chiefs based on the early season struggles of their recent campaigns.
They will probably be disappointed they didn’t come away with a bonus point after having three tries in the bag early in the second spell. But in the end they will be simply delighted to nail a victory and be on the points table when it looked like a positive result might slip from their grasp once again.
But the victory didn’t come without its hiccups. Already a halfback down in Jamie Nutbrown, they watched All Blacks No 9 Brendon Leonard leave with a leg problem after an hour. They’d already lost comeback centre Richard Kahui to a leg injury earlier in the second spell.
And those problems were further complicated when a dazed Donald left temporarily because the Chiefs had already used their two back reserves, meaning big flanker Liam Messam was forced to take over at second five-eighths.
Somehow the makeshift side hung tough to see out a crucial win although there was obvious relief when the final whistle went.
The Waratahs, on the back of their promising win over the Hurricanes in Sydney last weekend, were out to right a few wrongs against the Chiefs but trudged off with their fourth loss in five matches against Ian Foster’s side.
They had themselves to blame for a fair bit of that. They had plenty of territory and possession in this match but lacked much enterprise or penetration until it was too late.
The Waratahs based a lot of their attack around a pick and go game up front. That played into one of the strengths of the Chiefs with their close-quarter defence.
When they did give the ball some air in the dying stages the Waratahs looked reasonably effective.
The Chiefs know they have plenty of improving to do but they will now do that with something in the bank rather than trepidation in their step.
Skipper Jono Gibbes was tireless and had far more presence about him than he did last week. His biggest concern will probably be the continuing lineout struggles.
Sione Lauaki had a busy game although the Chiefs haven’t managed to free him with a full head of steam. They seem to be struggling with how best to utilise his skills under the new rules.
Big Wycliff Palu played a similar role for the Waratahs as the back rows had a grand tussle in slippery conditions after Hamilton got a much-needed dose of rain earlier in the day.
Leonard was in a dangerous mood before he eventually succumbed to a dead leg after getting a big hit to a thigh.
Sitiveni Sivivatu, in his 50th match, was another with a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde tale to his match. He scored a sensational solo try but gave up a touchdown to the Waratahs with a sloppy pass that got picked off. It was that sort of night.
The Chiefs started where they left off from last week’s horrors at Eden Park. There were handling lapses, poorly directed kicks and brain explosions at lineouts.
But their scrum held firm and, importantly, their defence was also vastly improved until their combinations were seriously disrupted late in the game.
The Chiefs, despite their struggles, are a dangerous side. With their first foray deep into NSW territory they took a lineout option from a close range penalty and managed to work the ball clear for Messam to charge through Kurtley Beale for the try after just 12 minutes.
On the half hour there was some magic from Sivivatu who ghosted through the Waratahs defence on a 50m run to the line. Donald finally landed some extras for a 12-nil lead at the break.
Whether that was enough considering the wind they had at their backs in the first half was questionable. They certainly left it tight in the finish.
The Chiefs started strongly in the second spell and Kahui showed his class and power to take two tacklers with him to the line for the try.
Sadly he was injured in the process and the Tahs took immediate advantage as their centre Ben Jacobs ran at the Chiefs’ defensive line and got through for the touchdown to finally get the visitors on the board.
The Chiefs had plenty of time to push for their bonus point try but they came up just short. Donald had a grand chance in the 68th minute when he lost the ball – and his fitness – lunging for the line.
So what looked like it could be a reasonably comfortable win turned into a tight finish when Sivivatu threw his intercept pass for replacement Sam Harris to snatch and burst 20m to the posts to cut the home team’s lead to five points.
When the Waratahs got a quick tap 40m out they had the numbers to get Lote Tuqiri over wide out to tie up the match at 17-all. Beale couldn’t convert, setting up a frantic finish.
The Chiefs kept their cool to get down to the right end of the field and force the penalty for Donald to convert into a cherished victory.
The Chiefs head south to take on the Hurricanes next week and the Waratahs head even deeper as they take on the Highlanders in Dunedin.
Chiefs 20: Liam Messam, Sitiveni Sivivatu, Richard Kahui tries; Stephen Donald con, pen.
Waratahs 17: Ben Jacobs, Sam Harris, Lote Tuqiri tries; Kurtley Beale con.