Super Rugby Pacific: Chiefs coach Clayton McMillan refuses to point finger at referee Ben O'Keeffe for final loss to Crusaders

Chiefs coach Clayton McMillan has spared any criticism of referee Ben O'Keeffe, after a contentious decision cost his side dearly in the 25-20 Super Rugby Pacific final defeat to the Crusaders.

In the dying moments of the first half at Hamilton's FMG Stadium and with the Chiefs down to 14 men, a forward pass from Crusaders second-five Jack Goodhue to flanker Tom Christie was waved away by officials.

After the Chiefs cleared into touch, the resulting lineout saw the visitors break down the sideline, before first-five Richie Mo'unga crossed for his side's second try. 

Sam Cane is shown a yellow card.
Sam Cane is shown a yellow card. Photo credit: Photosport

In a game of such fine margins, the seven points gained from one play can be seen as the difference between the Crusaders winning a seventh title in as many years and the Chiefs' first since 2013.

While McMillan concedes the moment was a key factor in the result going against his side, he won't be drawn into questioning the referee.

"The biggest call, momentum swinger, was what I thought was a clear and obvious forward pass, just before halftime.

"That [would give] us a scrum, we apply some pressure down that end of the field. They scored the play after... that's a big moment."

"I don't want to bag the referee - the crowd did that at the end of the game. Maybe that says something."

Any criticism for the referee should take a backseat to the Chiefs' own shortcomings on the night.

The Crusaders celebrate.
The Crusaders celebrate. Photo credit: Getty Images

An inflated penalty count against the Chiefs did them no favours on a night when everything needed to go their way. 

On top of that, they played 30 minutes at a numerical disadvantage. In the first half, All Blacks pair Anton Lienert-Brown and Luke Jacobson were shown yellow cards for foul play and repeat infringement respectively.

To compound their woes, co-captain Sam Cane was shown a yellow card in the dying moments, ensuring the Chiefs finished with 14 men, after losing arguably their most important player with the title on the line.

Despite McMillan's slight against match officials, they should count themselves lucky not to lose Lienert-Brown for the night, with his hit on Dallas McLeod probably worth more than 10 minutes in the bin.

"It's going to be tough to beat the Crusaders, when you have three yellow cards," said McMillan. "It's one of those things where you'll have to have a good look at it and determine was it the right call.

"The referee's the man in the middle, he obviously deemed that it was. I think that probably played a part in the outcome."

Regardless, the Chiefs coach will now return to the drawingboard for another attempt at the title in 2024.This season saw his team beaten just twice - with one of those coming in a highly rotated clash against the Reds.

While he admits this defeat will take time to heal from, McMillan's satisfaction with his players' application can't go unmentioned. 

"I'm extremely proud of our guys. We threw the kitchen sink at those guys, asked a lot of questions of them.

"We'll reflect once we've had an opportunity at some stage to have a look at the game and figure out what we could have done better.

"At this stage, all I can say is it hurts, and I'm extremely proud of the season and the way we fronted up tonight."