WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — The Wellington-based Hurricanes scored a try in the first minute, then repelled a series of attempted comebacks with two tries to scrumhalf T.J. Perenara to beat the Hamilton-based Chiefs 32-31 Friday to reach the Super Rugby semifinals.
Winger Julian Savea grabbed a long, looping pass from flyhalf Damian McKenzie out of the air and dashed 75 meters to score a try which rocked the Chiefs only 45 seconds after the kickoff.
In doing so, Savea helped defer his departure from the Hurricanes; he is one of five players along with captain Brad Shields and not counting head coach Chris Boyd who will quit the franchise as soon as the season ends.
If the Hurricanes thought an early try would be a pathway to an easy win, they were mistaken. Savea had a chance of another try from an intercept two minute later but was cut down by a brilliant chase by Chiefs center Anton Lienert-Brown.
The Chiefs then hit back with a try to scrumhalf Brad Weber and the teams were back on level terms at 7-7 after seven minutes. That set the tone for the majority of the match: the Hurricanes would edge ahead and the Chiefs, who never led, would respond.
The Hurricanes were finally able to pull away with a contentious try to Perenara before halftime and another, more clear-cut effort in the second half. Winger Ben Lam then made the game safe with his 15th try of the season which brought him level as the leading try-scorer of the season with New South Wales Waratahs winger Taqele Naiyaravoro.
The match was not as close as the final scoreline made it appear. The Hurricanes held a 32-17 lead with Lam's try in the 68th minute and the Chiefs were only able to lessen the winning margin with a try to McKenzie and another to flanker Lachlan Boshier after the fulltime siren.
A close match between the two New Zealand teams had been expected after each won one match against the other during the regular season. The Hurricanes beat the Chiefs 25-13 early in the season and the Chiefs beat the Hurricanes 28-24 in Hamilton last weekend.
The latest win made the Chiefs favorites for the quarterfinal, but Savea's early try on Friday gave the Hurricanes the start they needed. The Chiefs have built big leads in recent matches and were less confident chasing the game.
"We didn't get off to a great start," Chiefs captain Sam Cane said. "We didn't worry too much about that. We composed and worked our way back into the game.
"I think the telling time was 10 minutes before halftime and 15 to 20 minutes after. I thought they brought more intensity during that period. Their defense was strong and they held us out for long periods of time to the point where we really ran out of options on attack."