Winger Asaeli Tikoirotuma, hoping to catch the eye of the Fiji national selectors, scored four tries including the match-winner as the Chiefs survived a ferocious contest with their nearest neighbors to post their 11th win of the season.
The win ensured the Chiefs will take a four-point lead into the midseason break ahead of the Cape Town-based Stormers, who beat the Pretoria-based Bulls 19-14 to finish the 15th round atop the South Africa conference.
The ACT Brumbies beat the Melbourne Rebels 27-19 to preserve first place in the Australian conference, five points ahead of the defending champion Queensland Reds.
The seven-time champion Canterbury Crusaders headed into the four-week break with an emphatic 51-18 win over the Otago Highlanders, moving up to third place.
The Wellington Hurricanes beat the New South Wales Waratahs 33-12 to move inside the top six for the first time this season, holding that place when the Sharks – previously sixth – were beaten 38-28 by the last-place Lions.
The Sharks fell back to seventh place, the Highlanders to eighth and the Reds stayed in ninth, each retaining a chance of reaching the top-six playoffs zone with three regular season rounds remaining when the tournament resumes on June 29.
The Chiefs’ bonus-point win over the Blues, who fell back to last place with their 12th loss in 14 matches, guaranteed them a playoff place.
With 58 points they cannot be displaced from the top six, although they face a tough finish to the season with matches against the eighth-place Highlanders, third-place Crusaders and sixth-place Hurricanes.
Coach Dave Rennie said the Chiefs, who lead the New Zealand conference by seven points over the Crusaders, will now focus on clinching a home semifinal. Tikoirotuma’s four tries were only just enough to keep the Chiefs ahead of the Blues in a thrilling and seesawing match.
His first, in the 15th minute, gave the Chiefs their first lead in the match at 10-7 after they had been rocked by an early Blues try to center Francis Saili.
Tikoirotuma then touched down three times in the second half to rebuild leads for the Chiefs after the Blues had fought back to level the score 20-20 at halftime.
He scored in the 45th and 55th minutes to give the Chiefs a 34-20 lead and, after Auckland had rallied again to 34-34, scored the winner in the 70th minute. Blues coach Pat Lam rued another narrow loss.
“Bottom line, we hate losing,” he said. “I could go through the season and count on my hand games we could have won.”
Springboks winger Byan Habana scored a late try against his former teammates to clinch the Stormers’ win over the Bulls which may be enough to clinch first place in South Africa.
The Stormers have matches remaining against the 14th-place Lions, 10th-place Cheetahs and 12th-place Rebels while the Bulls play the Cheetahs, Sharks and Lions. A contentious first-half try by captain Pierre Spies and the kicking of flyhalf Morne Steyn had the Bulls ahead from the 29th minute in South Africa’s north-south derby.
But Stormers flanker Siya Kolisi made a telling contribution when he broke the Bulls’ defensive line and passed inside for Habana to burst clear and dive over next to the posts for the winning score.
“We had a good heart to heart last night and the boys really wanted to do it for each other,” Stormers captain Jean de Villiers said. “We played against a massively good team.”
The Crusaders’ seven-try win over their closest neighbors served as a warning that they are finding their best form at a critical stage of the season.
All Blacks winger Zac Guildford scored two tries and flyhalf Dan Carter kicked 14 points as the Crusaders posted their highest winning score against the Highlanders.
“We couldn’t afford to drop this game,” Guildford said. “We talked about it all week. A loss would pretty much end our season.”
The Hurricanes posted their second impressive victory in successive weeks over an Australian side to improve their challenge for the playoffs.
After last week’s 66-24 win over the Rebels, the young Hurricanes team scored four tries to take another bonus point from their rare win over the Waratahs in Sydney.
The loss dropped the Waratahs back to 11th place in one of their worst-ever seasons.
“It’s a very, very disappointing season for everyone but out of that you can learn things,” said Waratahs coach Michael Foley, whose job is reported to be in jeopardy.
The Lions broke an 11-match losing streak in beating the Sharks and harmed the Sharks’ bid for the playoffs.
Four first-half tries opened a 32-11 halftime lead at Ellis Park and gave the Lions enough breathing space to hold off a Sharks’ comeback attempt.
Despite being outscored 17-6 in the second half, John Mitchell’s Lions hung on for their first win since the opening round in February to lift themselves off the bottom of the standings. – Sapa-AP