Super Rugby Aotearoa 2021: Road to 11 loses, Chiefs on verge of unwanted record

Ever since Super Rugby Aotearoa rose from the ashes of the great COVID-19 lockdown of 2020, the Chiefs - or at least their results - have been woeful.   

If they can’t upset the Hurricanes in Wellington on Saturday night, they will break the record for most consecutive defeats by an NZ Super Rugby side, which they currently share at 11 with the 2012-13 Highlanders.

They’re not the all-time worst - yet. South Africa’s Lions still hold the overall record of 14 successive loses from May 2009 to May 2010.

And some may argue that the Highlanders streak was actually worse, because they had the ‘luxury’ of playing the supposedly weaker Australian and South African teams, and not the super-tough back-to-back-to-back local derbies of Super Rugby Aotearoa.

Regardless, defeat on Saturday would see the Chiefs hold the record all by themselves.

Incredibly for the Chiefs, the slump started before the pandemic, more than a year ago now. 

Under new coach Warren Gatland, the Waikato-based side actually made a bright 4-2 start to the scheduled Super Rugby competition, beating both the Blues and Crusaders to open their campaign.

But while their results make sorry reading, their record could have been so different with an ounce of composure, some luck and perhaps kinder referee decisions.

The margins of error are so small...

1. March 13, 2020 - Lost to Hurricanes 27-24 at Hamilton

Almost a year to the day after the teams played out a 23-all draw on the same ground, this contest looked like ending in another stalemate. 

The Hurricanes built an attack that lasted 35 phases, before a grass-cutter tackle by Chiefs prop Reuben O'Neill saw referee Jaco Peyper blow for the infringement. Jordie Barrett coolly stepped up and nailed the penalty goal to seal a come-from-behind victory.

This result sums up the Waikato’s sides losing streak, as they’ve never been blown off the park, but often find ways to beat themselves.

2. June 13, 2020 - Lost to Highlanders 28-27 in Dunedin

The first professional rugby match with fans after the COVID-19 lockdown provided late drama that poured more misery on Chiefs fans. 

Playing under the roof in Dunedin, the Waikato side rallied from a six-point deficit at halftime to lead 27-25 with three minutes remaining. Up stepped Bryn Gatland - son of the Chiefs coach - to slot a 40m drop goal to inflict pain on his father’s side. 

Gatland Junior wasn’t initially named in the matchday squad, but a late Josh Ioane injury gave him his shot and he took the opportunity with both hands.

The Highlanders celebrate beating the Chiefs
The Highlanders celebrate beating the Chiefs Photo credit: Photosport

3. June 20, 2020 - Lost to Blues 24-12 in Hamilton 

The Chiefs’ lacklustre attack became a trademark of their 2020 season, largely due to Gatland’s defensive game philosophy. 

They returned home looking to break their worrying run of form, but ran into an improving Blues outfit. In a sign of things to come, the Aucklanders kept them tryless for their first win in Hamilton since 2011.

4. June 28, 2020 - Lost to Crusaders 18-13 in Christchurch 

When you’re a side out of confidence and form, the last place you want to go is down to Christchurch on a cold wet night made for Crusaders rugby. 

As they usually do, the home side dominated through their forwards and raced to a 18-3 lead with 17 minutes remaining. Credit to the Chiefs, they finished strong to close within a converted try of victory, but could not complete the comeback.

5. July 5, 2020 - Lost to Hurricanes 25-18 in Hamilton 

Next up, the side that started this horrible run of form, but the ‘Canes came into the contest without a victory since that pre-COVID contest. 

The visitors raced to a 25-6 lead after 60 minutes, but the Chiefs received a stroke of luck, when Hurricanes lock Scott Scrafton was shown two harsh yellow cards and his side was reduced to 14 for the remaining 25 minutes. 

Somehow the Chiefs couldn’t turn their advantage into victory, as the Wellington side somehow hung on for a seven-point victory.  

Patelesio Tomkinson is congratulated by Aaron Smith on scoring a last minute winning try against the Chiefs
Patelesio Tomkinson is congratulated by Aaron Smith on scoring a last minute winning try against the Chiefs Photo credit: Getty

6. July 19, 2020 - Lost to Highlanders 33-31 in Hamilton 

The Chiefs hoped to avoid a record five straight home defeats and came out of the sheds on fire. Playing their best rugby of the season, they stormed to a 24-0 lead after 20 minutes, before it all turned to custard.

A moment of controversy - so common during this losing streak - came in the 65th minute. 

Still leading by 12 points, the Chiefs had seemingly landed the killer blow, but had a try ruled out by referee Mike Fraser and television match official Brendon Pickerill, who went back more than two phases (which they weren’t permitted to do) and found an offence in the build-up.

With five minutes remaining, Highlanders winger Jona Nareki - remember that name - sliced through for a 50-metre stunner, before a Sio Tomkinson try, converted by Mitch Hunt after the siren, broke Chiefs hearts.

7. July 26, 2020 - Lost to Blues 21-17 in Auckland 

With more records on the line, the Chiefs travelled an hour up the motorway to their northern neighbours. 

Their attack continued to let them down, but this game will be remembered for another late controversial moment.

When No.8 Pita Gus Sowakula lunged for the line, Blues lock Josh Goodhue wrapped up the ball and won a penalty to deny the visitors a last-second victory. 

Chiefs players surrounded the referee, pleading for him to check whether Sowakula had scored, but the home side ultimately held on to inflict a franchise-record seventh straight loss on the visitors.

Chiefs surround referee Brendon Pickerill
Chiefs surround referee Brendon Pickerill Photo credit: Getty

8. August 1, 2020 - Lost to Crusaders 32-19 in Hamilton

For the third successive game, the Chiefs were hurt by controversy, after rallying from 12-0 down to trail by one with 20 minutes remaining.

Barnstorming Crusaders wing Leicester Fainga’anuku scored a late try, but replays suggested he dropped the ball. The TMO ruled in the visitors’ favour, extending the Chiefs’ club-record losing streak to eight games.

9. August 8, 2020 - Lost to Hurricanes in Wellington 31-18

The last game of the 2020 season - and the last before Gatland took a year off to coach the British & Irish Lions - was against the team that started the Chiefs slide. 

The visitors’ rotten luck was summed up, when captain Sam Cane collided with the knee of Hurricanes fullback Jordie Barrett's knee and was taken off with another worrying neck injury.  

The Chiefs were never in the contest, as the Hurricanes ran away with the bonus-point victory to end their dreadful season.

10. March 5, 2021 - Lost to Highlanders in Hamilton 39-23 

A new year and a new coach brought fresh new hope for a Chiefs side trying to snap their nine-match losing streak. Surely, they couldn’t be as bad as 2020, but the early signs didn’t look good.

The Waikato side started the new season under COVID-19 Alert Level 2, with only about 100 fans in attendance, but they raced out to a 20-6 lead, before the wheels fell off. 

Their confidence was shattered, mistakes crept in and a devastating hat-trick display from Nareki - yes, that man again - carried the southerners home, as Clayton McMillan started his sole year in charge in the worst possible way.  

Leicester Fainga'anuku
Leicester Fainga'anuku Photo credit: Getty

11. March 13, 2021 - Lost to Crusaders in Christchurch 39-17 

When you’re down, luck seems to have a way of going against you, illustrated by Fainga’anuku’s freakish corner try to pour more misery on the Waikato side. 

The Chiefs were 10 points ahead, when the winger wove his magic, but it wasn’t the only frustration for fans, as controversy abounded in this contest.  

Cane used a captain’s challenge to review a potential forward pass. The TMO ruled that halfback Brad Webber knocked the ball out of Richie Mo’unga’s hands and back towards his own goal-line, but subsequent replays showed Weber didn't actually make contact with the ball when it deflected.. 

Compounding the error, Webber then prevented a try from an offside position and was sent to the sin bin, conceding a penalty try. 

Referees boss Bryce Lawrence later confirmed the call, which swung the game in favour of the defending champions, was wrong.

Pouring more salt in the wounds, Fainga’anuku also seemed to suggest he had grounded his foot in touch as he scored his miraculous try.

The result left the Chiefs where they are today - tied with the Highlanders and on the brink some unwanted history against the Hurricanes on Saturday night.

Join Newshub for live updates of the Hurricanes v Chiefs Super Rugby Aotearoa clash from 7pm Saturday.