The Chiefs showed their class to produce a 17-point surge in the second half, then held on with resolute defence to keep out a strong Crusaders side 20-19 in an epic Vodacom Super Rugby semifinal in Hamilton on Saturday.
The defending champions, who were written off before the semifinal, stuttered initially, then produced a magnificent second half to place one hand on the title after a tense battle in the heartland of New Zealand rugby.
Considering the historic significance of home ground advantage, whoever the Chiefs play next week will have a massive task to defy history as they will have to cross 16 000km of Indian Ocean just to get to the game and all with a short turnaround while the Chiefs wait at home.
South Africa’s last interest in the competition lies with the Vodacom Bulls, who will face Jake White’s Brumbies later on Saturday in the second semifinal at Loftus Versfeld (kick-off at 5:05pm CAT, GMT+2).
But on a night of high drama where both sides laid into each other, it was the Chiefs who showed more composure and underlined their credentials as defending champions after finishing top of the Super Rugby log.
The Crusaders threw everything at them towards the end, but eventually didn’t have enough as they slumped to their fifth consecutive playoff defeat since their last Vodacom Super Rugby victory in 2008 under former coach Robbie Deans.
Still, they looked set to buck that trend after dominating the first half, using their chances better and looking strong on defence whenever the Chiefs had the ball. But the 17-point blowout in the second half totally changed the game in the home side’s favour and forced the Crusaders to play catch-up in the end.
They managed to close an 11 point gap in the last 20 minutes to one point, but weren’t able to take control again as they did in the first half as the Chiefs showed amazing resolve and passion to win the game.
The first half was probably the best passage of play from the Crusaders, as they dominated the breakdown and allowed the Chiefs little leeway on attack, stopping whatever came at them while using turnover ball to surge downfield and force their opposition into mistakes.
It wasn’t a surprise then that Dan Carter’s boot had put them 9-3 up at the break, and they were probably unlucky not to be leading by more.
But the second half was a telling turnaround as Aaron Cruden opened the scoring with a penalty.
A few minutes later the Chiefs made a brave decision as Craig Clarke turned down a kickable penalty to go for the corner, and while they were initially stopped by the Crusaders a beautiful running line by Lelia Masaga provided the first try of the game.
Masaga got the ball with a host of defenders in front of him, doubled back infield and sensing a gap, put on the afterburners to scorch his way towards the line, taking two Crusaders defenders with him to power over for the opening try.
The Crusaders had hardly caught their breath from the kickoff when Ryan Crotty fired out a long pass straight into the hands of Cruden, who intercepted with pleasure and ran 40 metres to deal a crushing blow to the Crusaders and the scoreboard.
But as most teams in this competition know, the Canterbury side don’t give up that easily, and even though they were now 11 points down, they immediately struck back – this time through fullback Israel Dagg, who showed what a classy player he is by first goosestepping Bundee Aki, then rounding Asaeli Tikoirotuma for a superb individual effort to bring the scoreline to 20-16.
Cruden had an opportunity to get the scoreline up to seven again, but pushed a penalty from around 30 metres out. Carter didn’t miss the opportunity he got, even though it was debatable whether or not the Crusaders should have gone for the corner, and slotted the penalty to make it 20-19.
Carter also missed a drop goal attempt late in the game after being rushed by Chiefs defenders, and the home side grew in confidence as the minutes counted down.
The Crusaders finally made the mistake on the hooter, and the celebrations started in Hamilton.
Top of the log in league play, and now hosting the final. The Chiefs know they have earned the right to be in the final, and with the odds in their favour now, are very much favourites to retain their title.
Chiefs – Tries: Lelia Masaga, Aaron Cruden. Conversions: Cruden (2). Penalties: Cruden (2).
Crusaders – Try: Israel Dagg. Conversion: Dan Carter. Penalties: Carter (4).