The Wellington-based Hurricanes ensured this will be their best-ever season in Super Rugby when they beat the Hamilton-based Chiefs 22-18 Saturday to likely clinch first place in the New Zealand conference.
The win was the Hurricanes' 11th in 12 matches this season, topping the franchise record of 10 wins in a season. It took them 14 points clear of the Chiefs in New Zealand and on the overall championships table.
Center Ma'a Nonu scored a try in each half for the Hurricanes, the second of which was his 50th in Super Rugby -- a record for an active player. His double also marked his milestone 50th appearance in midfield in combination with his All Blacks teammate Conrad Smith.
Nonu's first try, in the ninth minute, gave the Hurricanes an early 7-0 lead and they were ahead 10-6 approaching halftime, until a converted try to Charlie Ngatai put the Chiefs 13-10 in front at the interval.
Nonu almost had a double early in the second half but his celebration was cut short when the video referee determined he had lost the ball over the line. Flanker Ardie Savea was driven over in the 45th to retrieve the lead at 15-13 and Nonu's second try, in the 68th, gave the Hurricanes a more secure lead at 22-13.
The Chiefs entered the match severely depleted by injuries and lost two locks to injuries and a player to the sin-bin during the second half. Despite those disadvantages, they hit back with a 74th-minute try by Sam Cane which cut the lead to 22-18 and clinched a consolation bonus point.
They then seemed to have stolen the match with a try to replacement scrumhalf Augustine Pulu two minutes from fulltime but the video referee determined there had been a knock-on in the scoring movement. The Chiefs had a last chance from a scrum close to the Hurricanes' line in the final minute but the Hurricanes flung back the Chiefs' pack and won a penalty to end the game.
"It was probably the first time we've been put under that sort of pressure in the first 40 minutes and it took us a little while to react," Hurricanes stand-in captain Jeremy Thrush said. "That was a good test for us to see what it feels like to be in the playoffs. The Chiefs are a never-say-die team and that's why they've won two championships."