Auckland, New Zealand – Winger Alaesi Tikoirotuma scored four tries, equaling the record for an individual in a Super 15 rugby match, as the Waikato Chiefs beat the Auckland Blues 41-34 Saturday to consolidate overall first place as the tournament breaks for June test matches.
Tikoirotuma scored his first try in a first half which ended in a 20-20 deadlock, then added three including the match-winner in a thrilling second half as the Chiefs built and rebuilt leads.
The Chiefs started the match with a three-point lead atop the overall standings. Their bonus-point victory on Saturday ensured they would stay in first place when the tournament breaks for the international test season for four weeks.
Waikato has won 11 of 13 matches this season but few of their victories were more hard-earned than this one, although it was achieved with five tries and gave them a valuable five championship points.
Each time the Chiefs edged ahead with tries the Blues responded in kind to close the margin, creating one of the most exciting matches in the long history of border disputes between the North Island neighbors.
Auckland suffered its 12th loss in 14 matches to stay only one place off the bottom of the table, but took two points from the match - for scoring four tries and losing by fewer than seven points - and produced its most courageous performance of the season.
“It was a tough game,” Chiefs captain Liam Messam said. “The Blues came out tonight and took it to us. Chiefs-Blues games are always tough and no matter what the media say about the Blues, they're a good side.”
For most of the game, the Chiefs led and the Blues responded. The Blues led for only a short period between the 12th and 15th minutes of the first half when a try to center Francis Saili gave Auckland a 7-3 lead.
Tikoirotuma's first try, in the 15th minute, gave the Chiefs a 10-7 advantage and they held that lead to the end, though it was constantly under siege from the determined Blues who were galvanized by the return of backline stars Rene Ranger and Rudi Wulf.
The Chiefs opened a 20-10 lead after 31 minutes when All Blacks midfield star Sonny Bill Williams crashed through tight defense to score his third try of the season.
But Auckland showed the spirit that prevailed throughout the match when they struck back with a try, conversion and penalty to winger Lachie Munro to level the scores by halftime.
Waikato drew away again with Tikoirorutam's second try and led 34-20 -its widest margin - when Fijian-born Tikoirotuma completed his hat trick in the 55th minute.
Again, Auckland rallied and refused to accept as inevitable its latest loss in a dismal season. When Chiefs lock Michael Fitzgerald was sin-binned after a fracas with an opponent, the Blues took advantage of their numerical advantage and scored tries through fullback Rudi Wulf and Ranger to tie the scores at 34-34.
Ranger's try was one of the best of the season: an outstanding feat of pace and athleticism which left in his wake a long string of attempted tacklers.
But the Chiefs also showed spirit and they refused to give up hope of the victory that cemented their top placing in the tournament.
All Blacks flyhalf Aaron Cruden put in a perfectly weighted kick for Tikoirotuma in the 70th minute and the winger won the race to the ball to seal the match.
“We just fell short,” Auckland captain Luke Braid said. “A pass went down near the end which could have been a try under the sticks. Unlucky but I'm just proud that the boys stayed in the fight.”
Waikato 41 (Alaesi Tikoirotuma 4, Sonny Bill Williams tries; Aaron Cruden 5 conversions, 2 penalties), Auckland 34 (Francis Saili, Lachie Munro, Rudi Wulf, Rene Ranger tries; Lachie Munro 4
conversions, 2 penalties). HT: 20-20. – Sapa-AP