Quade Cooper (Gallo Images)
Hamilton - The Reds secured top spot in the Super Rugby standings and home advantage throughout the playoffs with a controlled 19-11 victory over the Chiefs in the Hamilton rain on Saturday.
With an unassailable 66 points from their 16 regular season games, the Reds will now have a week off before hosting a semi-final in Brisbane and, if they get through that, their first Super Rugby final on July 9.
There were few of the Quade Cooper-inspired fireworks that have characterised Reds' performances this year but Will Genia, the other member of their world class halfback partnership, marshalled his forwards superbly to secure a hard-fought win.
The Reds spoiled the Chiefs' lineout and repeatedly stole ball at the breakdown in the first hour, while Cooper punished any infringements with four penalties and moved to 210 points for the season.
"To finish the season as number one is a massive effort," Reds skipper James Horwill said in a televised pitchside interview.
"It shows the consistency we've been building towards and I'm really proud of that. But the finals is a whole different ball game and we'll have a week off now to prepare well."
Teenage flank Liam Gill, who scored the Reds' sole try, and centre Ben Tapuai were only two of several stand-ins to have impressive games, mitigating the absence through injury of a string of first-choice players.
Their semi-final opponents will take heart from the pressure the Chiefs were able exert late in the game but not from the fact that the Reds defence repelled the New Zealanders time and again from close range.
Number eight Fritz Lee did manage to bulldoze over two minutes from time but there was to be no winning farewell for Chiefs coach Ian Foster or captain Mils Muliaina, who is moving to Japan after the Rugby World Cup.
"It was a sad way to finish," said Muliaina. "We came back well but it was a quality side we were playing out there."
It was the Reds forwards who got the first points on the board, capitalising on a catch and drive from a lineout when 19-year-old Gill burrowed over from close range in the seventh minute.
Cooper converted from wide out and added a penalty 10 minutes later after Chiefs lock Romana Graham was sin-binned as the Reds got reward for their dominance up front.
The Chiefs held on to come through the first half hour without any further damage to the scoreline and inched their way back to a 10-6 deficit at halftime through two Stephen Donald penalties.
The home side were back in the contest but the Reds kept up the pressure at the breakdown and three Cooper penalties in nine minutes up to the hour-mark gave them the breathing room they needed in the last 20 minutes.
15 Mils Muliaina (captain), 14 Lelia Masaga, 13 Save Tokula, 12 Dwayne Sweeney, 11 Sitiveni Sivivatu, 10 Stephen Donald, 9 Brendon Leonard, 8 Fritz Lee, 7 Tanerau Latimer, 6 Liam Messam, 5 Romana Graham, 4 Craig Clarke, 3 Nathan White, 2 Aled de Malmanche, 1 Ben May
Substitutes: 16 Hika Elliot, 17 Ben Afeaki, 18 Culum Retallick, 19 Matt Vant Leven, 20 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 21 Tim Nanai-Williams, 22 Jackson Willison
15 Jono Lance, 14 Rod Davies, 13 Will Chambers, 12 Ben Tapuai, 11 Dom Shipperley, 10 Quade Cooper, 9 Will Genia, 8 Jake Schatz, 7 Liam Gill, 6 Scott Higginbotham, 5 James Horwill (captain), 4 Rob Simmons, 3 James Slipper, 2 Saia Faingaa, 1 Ben Daley
Substitutes: 16 James Hanson, 17 Greg Holmes, 18 Adam Wallace-Harrison, 19 Radike Samo, 20 Ian Prior, 21 Dallan Murphy, 22 Caleb Ralph