The Chiefs are into their second Super Rugby final in four years and will now have to wait until the early hours of tomorrow morning to find out whether it is at home or in South Africa.
The home side won a tight semifinal with the favoured Crusaders 20-17 in front of a sellout crowd of 25,100 at Waikato Stadium tonight, hanging on at the end as the visitors threw everything at them.
In the end it was the Chiefs defence that got them through with their much-maligned set-piece this time standing up heroically in the face of an All Blacks-laced Crusaders pack and their attack always looked more creative and potent.
The Chiefs were reluctant to kick all night and ran a lot of ball from within their own 22m area. It was a risky tactic but it paid off as they scored two tries to the Crusaders’ one.
A crucial offside call from assistant referee Jonathan Kaplan, with a minute to go in the first half, unravelled some of Chiefs’ good work, leading to a try to Crusaders second five-eighth Ryan Crotty with time up in the first spell to make the halftime score 17-11 to the home side.
But until then it had been the Chiefs who made almost all the play after fronting up in the set-pieces much more impressively than they had done three weeks earlier against the same opposition at the same venue.
It was a testy first spell with a lot of push and shove and a couple of confrontations as tempers frayed, culminating in all players being issued a white card (effectively placed on report) on the recommendation of Kaplan when he said he could not say who had started a couple of individual punchups, although Waikato players appeared to be reacting to obstruction.
Fifteen minutes into the game it was a 3-3 stalemate on the scoreboard, but the Chiefs were fronting up at lineout and scrum time and making all the attacking play.
Midway through the half they put together 20 phases on attack before the red and blacks managed to steal the ball but All Blacks lock Luke Romano had to be replaced by Tom Donnelly due to injury and hooker Corey Flynn spent time in the blood bin.
The Chiefs were making breaks, including a big one from Liam Messam, carried on by Sonny Bill Williams, who soon after made another break that halfback Tawera Kerr-Barlow carried on before prop Sona Taumalolo got over for his ninth try of the season, courtesy of a TMO call finally going the way of the Chiefs.
Aaron Cruden converted and although Dan Carter replied with a penalty for the Crusaders it was local hero Messam who lit up the stadium in the 33rd minute. The big No 8 scored a try by the posts, which followed a brilliant break from the back by fullback Robbie Robinson with Williams doing the same off the ensuing ruck and slipping a pass to Messam running behind him from depth.
Cruden’s conversion made it 17-6 and but for referee Craig Joubert ruling centre Andrew Horrell and winger Asaeli Tikoirotuma offside on Kaplan’s advice, after the Chiefs broke out from a speculator kick from lock Brodie Retallick, it would have probably stayed that way to the interval
An early penalty out in front was comfortably converted by Carter at the start of the second spell and suddenly the visitors were back within three points at 17-14.
The Chiefs then got a lucky let-off when Kerr-Barlow was penalised for stamping on Robbie Fruean and Carter put his penalty kick out in goal for a Chiefs scrum put in 40m out, a resulting penalty enabling Cruden to increase the lead back to six points – 20-14.
The Chiefs kept putting the pressure on with their aggressive defence and the Crusaders unusually did not respond well, making mistake after mistake.
But when the Chiefs brought both Sam Cane and Ben Afeaki on, Richie McCaw revved up the Crusaders and they won a scrum penalty that Carter kicked from 43 metres near the right touchline to bring it back to 20-17.
Cruden had a chance to put the lead back to six but his 55m penalty attempt in the 29th minute hit the under side of the cross bar and with five minutes to go Carter had the chance from 48m in midfield but chopped under the ball and it fell well short.
Then came that nervous final few minutes as the Crusaders threw everything at the home side but the Chiefs’ defence held strong.
Chiefs 20 (Sona Taumalolo, Liam Messam tries; Aaron Cruden 2 conversions, 2 penalty goals)
Crusaders 17 (Ryan Crotty try; Dan Carter 4 penalty goals).
Halftime 17-11 Chiefs.