Chiefs hold off tough Reds to book Super Rugby semis spot

rugby10 June 2023 08:22| © Reuters
Damian McKenzie © Getty Images

Damian McKenzie was a match-winner with the boot as the top-qualifying Chiefs beat the Reds 29-20 in a tense Super Rugby Pacific quarterfinal in New Zealand on Saturday.

Flyhalf McKenzie landed all seven shots at goal in a 19-point performance, denying the Reds the chance to become the first Australian side to win a finals match on New Zealand soil.

The eighth-ranked qualifiers threatened an enormous boilover in Hamilton when they went 20-19 ahead entering the final quarter of the game, after winger Suliasi Vunivalu crossed for his second try.

However, the Chiefs held their nerve, reclaiming the lead through McKenzie's fifth penalty after a try to No 8 Pita Gus Sowakula with four minutes remaining.

Chiefs co-captain Sam Cane said his side were pushed to the limit.

"We came up against a really good Reds side. They defended really well, their set pieces were pretty good, they put us under some pressure and kicked really well," said Cane, who also skippers the All Blacks.

"It was an arm wrestle, we had to grind it out, but I'm proud of the way we kept our composure and managed to do it."

The Reds scored three tries to two but their flyhalf Tom Lynagh landed just two of his five shots, with McKenzie's accuracy proving decisive as he lifted his competition-leading season tally of points to 167.

The Chiefs' only loss of the regular season came against the Reds, in New Plymouth four weeks earlier.

The Reds had lost three successive games since then and were given little chance of toppling a side boasting the best attack and defence in the competition.

However, the visitors matched the Chiefs' vaunted physicality and opened up a 10-9 lead late in the first spell through tries to Vunivalu and Harry Wilson.

Winger Emoni Narawa gave the Chiefs a six-point lead at the interval through a try in the left corner, capitalising on a scything break from in-form fullback Shaun Stevenson.

The match marks the end of a six-year tenure for Reds coach Brad Thorn, with the former All Blacks forward and Australian rugby league international announcing in April he would be standing down.

Captain Tate McDermott was disappointed the visitors could not push further into the finals series, praising his teammates' commitment and lamenting some tight officiating decisions that went the Chiefs' way.

"There were a couple of calls that were probably questionable, to be honest," he said.

"I'm really proud of that effort, we came here like we did earlier on this season – we gave it a really good crack.

"This is Thorny's last game in charge of this franchise and he's been an absolute joy for us, I just want to say thank you to him."