Those who are going into the penultimate week of the Vodacom Super Rugby round-robin phase feeling they have impossible dreams might have been encouraged by the Crusaders’ awesome 43-15 win over the table-topping Chiefs in Christchurch on Friday.
The Crusaders have what some people would consider an impossible dream in the same way that the Sharks and the DHL Stormers do – they went into the weekend needing to pick up two bonus-point victories while hoping that the Chiefs would draw a blank from the last two rounds for them to win the New Zealand conference.
Sound unlikely? Well, it is, except that the Crusaders are now halfway there after blanketing the Chiefs at the AAMI Stadium with a performance that sends out an ominous warning to their future opponents and was a massive statement of intent.
If the Crusaders win with a bonus point next week and the Chiefs don’t pick up any points against the Blues at Eden Park, then the Crusaders can steal an unlikely conference victory.
They have a much better points difference than the Chiefs, and that will count in their favour if the teams end level on the same number of log points.
The Crusaders' win was great news for the Vodacom Bulls, who can now go top of the overall log if they beat the Sharks at Loftus on Saturday. So once again the Super Rugby season is heading towards a thrilling finish, and several scenarios are still possible.
The Crusaders started strongly and had all the momentum and territory in the first quarter, with the pressure forced on the Chiefs at the breakdowns translating into four penalties that Dan Carter kicked to propel his team into a 12-3 lead.
If the first quarter hour for the Crusaders was impressive, the middle parts of the first half were not so, and the Chiefs came storming back when Aaron Cruden picked up a charged-down ball and took it up to the Crusaders' posts before Tawera Kerr-Barlow put a cross-kick into the left corner for wing Aseli Tikoirotuma to score.
That made it 12-8 and the Chiefs looked like they were coming back into the game as they started to cut a bigger presence at the breakdowns than they had earlier and their defensive line manned up to a Crusaders attack that for a while became too lateral.
However the match was effectively wrapped up for the Crusaders with their strong finish to the first half, which was started by flanker Matt Todd, who was outstanding in the battle for the ball on the ground throughout, being put in a gap before putting a kick down the left touchline for Zac Guildford to chase.
Guildford got to the ball ahead of Patrick Osborne but the Chiefs player did well to grab him from behind and swing him into touch.
Nonetheless the Crusaders had field position and were determined to make it count, which they did do when off the subsequent play the Crusaders were caught behind their own posts and a five-metre scrum was forced.
They couldn’t make anything of the first scrum as it was dropped as they were in the act of trying the pushover, but after the reset Kieran Read powered his way over for a try that was awarded after consultation with the TMO.
Carter’s conversion made it 19-8 at halftime and the Crusaders very seldom lose matches from such an advantage.
And that lead became even more commanding straight after the break when Israel Dagg, fast regaining his most impressive form, ghosted into the Crusaders' backline just outside the No 13 channel and swiveled inside and out the Chiefs' defence to score a great try after 42 minutes.
Not long after that Read was over for his second try and his team’s third as the Crusaders made a sweep to the left count for them, and suddenly it was no longer a question of who was going to win, but whether or not the Crusaders would grab the four-try bonus point.
And they didn’t have to wait too long to settle that question, with Ryan Crotty going in at the right corner as the Crusaders sustained the relentless pressure that saw them camp in the Chiefs' 22 for 21 of the first 60 minutes of the match.
Along the way Carter became the first player to kick 1 500 points in Super Rugby – a record that is unlikely to be broken in a hurry as his nearest challenger, the Bulls’ Morne Steyn, will be ending his Super Rugby career in a couple of weeks.
After notching the four-try bonus the Crusaders, aware that they needed to prevent the Chiefs from scoring four tries, went into defensive mode for a while.
During that time the Chiefs did manage what was to be only a consolation score as Charlie Nagatai went over in the corner.
At the time, though, there were only eight minutes left, and they needed a further two to clinch the bonus point that would put them out of sight in the conference race.
They did try in the last minutes, but the Crusaders had the last laugh as they benefited from a handling mistake, reserve Tyler Blyendaal running half the length of the field to score the Crusaders’ fifth try and put the seal on a great win.
Crusaders – Tries: Kieran Read (2), Israel Dagg, Ryan Crotty, Tyler Bleyendaal. Conversions: Dan Carter (3). Penalties: Carter (4).
Chiefs– Tries: Asaeli Tikoirotuma, Charlie Ngatai. Conversion: Andrew Horrell. Penalty: Aaron Cruden.