Chiefs hang on to keep pace with the ACT Brumbies at the top of the ladder.
Defending Super 15 champions the Waikato Chiefs survived a second-half fightback to defeat the Western Force 22-21 on Friday and keep up the pressure on competition leaders the ACT Brumbies.
The Force scored two tries to one through winger Pat Dellit but poor discipline cost them dearly, allowing Chiefs fly-half Aaron Cruden to kick five penalties and secure a win by the narrowest the margins.
The victory cements the Chiefs’ position at the top of the New Zealand conference, although captain Craig Clarke admitted it was a scrappy performance against a Force outfit who have downed the Queensland Reds and Canterbury Crusaders this year.
“It’s a win. Pretty frustrating, I know it was wet but we’re pretty disappointed,” he said.
“Still not an 80-minute performance from us.”
The Chiefs, already missing star backs Tim Nanai-Williams and Richard Kahui, suffered another injury blow when it was revealed just before kick-off that fly-half Gareth Anscombe had a broken foot and would be out for six weeks.
Cruden, who had intended to play off the bench to rest a sore ankle, was promoted to the starting line-up and his boot proved decisive helping the Chiefs recover from a poor start.
The Force stunned the Chiefs with a try after two-and-a-half minutes when they stole a turnover ball and sent it to Dellit, who caught the defence napping as he soccered it down the tryline before regathering and claiming five points.
Cruden narrowed the gap with a penalty before Lelia Masanga latched onto a pass after some patient build-up work to put the Chiefs in front with a try in the corner.
Cruden nailed the conversion and both sides notched two penalties apiece to go into half-time with the Chiefs leading 19-11.
They exchanged penalties again after the restart but it was the Force who lifted their intensity and were rewarded when Dellit again split the defence for his second try, with Hayward adding the extras to make it 22-21 to the Chiefs.
Asaeli Tikoirotuma almost hit back immediately for the Chiefs when he took off down the wing but the move broke down when his offlead went forward as he was bundled over the sideline.
One area where the Chiefs were dominant was the set piece and the Force ended the match a man down when prop Kieran Longbottom was sin-binned for repeatedly collapsing the scrum under sustained pressure.
But the advantage was squandered when Liam Messam lost the ball forward on the tryline and the Force again rallied their attack, with the Chiefs grateful to kick the ball into touch after the siren sounded.