The Chiefs made a massive statement and took a firm grip on the New Zealand conference race as they surged strongly in the final quarter to beat the Crusaders 28-19 in a high quality Vodacom Super Rugby derby in Hamilton on Friday.
The win means that the Chiefs are now 10 points clear of their nearest challengers, the Crusaders, who were denied a bonus point from Friday’s match when Aaron Cruden slotted a penalty in the last minute of the game to take his team beyond the seven point winning margin. The Chiefs enjoy a bye next week, the last round before the international window, so will be comfortably ahead on both the conference and overall log through the month of June.
It never looked like being such a convincing win for most of the way, and in fact for much of the game it looked as though the Crusaders might continue their impressive recent surge up the log as they dominated territory and possession for long periods.
But faced with a fired up Crusaders team running into form, the Chiefs, who have been a bit iffish in recent weeks although they do keep winning, stepped up a gear in the one area where they were excellent last year but haven’t been quite so good in 2013 – namely their defensive game.
Leading 19-18 the Crusaders looked like they were on the brink of wrapping up the victory when they camped in Chiefs territory for 10 minutes in the middle of the second half. They did everything but score in that period, with on one occasion skipper Kieran Read looking as if he was about to dot down as he ran onto a chip kick only to be undone by a desperate but determined tackle by Bundee Aki.
The Crusaders may kick themselves for not taking the points from a penalty opportunity, but they must have backed themselves to score as time and again they surged towards the Chiefs line only to be denied by despairing defence. The Chiefs did everything to withstand the pressure, including winning a lineout set five metres from the line against the throw.
Eventually the Chiefs managed to bring some relief by kicking the ball away from their line, and the crowd of 22 000 gave them a massive round of applause for the determination and bravery they had shown in resisting the Crusaders attacks.
After that you got the sense that the Chiefs would be emboldened by their efforts on defence, and that feeling was proved correct as the Chiefs drove strongly into the Crusaders’ half and for much of the rest of the match it was the Crusaders committed to defence.
Aki, the hero of the defensive effort for the Chiefs, almost turned into a villain when in the 68 minute the hosts won a heel against the head against a Crusaders scrum that predictably struggled on occasion without Owen Franks and the Chiefs went over for a try only for the TMO to rule that Aki had obstructed Tom Taylor during the build-up.
Referee Steve Walsh had been playing advantage for the Crusaders collapsing the scrum where they were out-shoved, and Craig Clarke, the Chiefs captain, took the brave and some would say even foolish decision to opt for another scrum rather than kick for goal.
However both Franks and Aki were able to heave a sigh of both relief and elation as another solid scrum brought the momentum that enabled Liam Masanga, who was on as a replacement, to produce a sharp burst that drew in the Crusaders near defenders just enough to create the space that Aki needed to go over for what proved the winning try. It was an occasion when the dice was rolled and it came off.
The Chiefs had gone to halftime with a narrow 15-13 lead built mainly around two charge down tries. The first was scored by Aaron Cruden after his opposite number Dan Carter was charged down in the 11th minute, the converted try overtaking an early Tom Taylor penalty to make it 7-3. Then came a good try from the Crusaders as Matt Todd dotted down off a strong drive from the forwards near the Chiefs’ line, but the Chiefs were soon back in the lead as the Crusaders won a sloppy lineout ball and after one recycle it was Tom Marshall who had his kick from the tryline charged down for captain Clarke to score.
The match lived up to its billing as one of the games to watch this weekend with both sides approaching it like it was a test match. It was brutal at times but the quality of the game was high, with the Chiefs’ determination to hang onto their title eventually prevailing through the never-say-die defensive effort that won them the game.
Chiefs – Tries: Aaron Cruden, Craig Clarke, Bundee Aki; Conversions: Aaron Cruden 2; Penalties: Aaron Cruden 3.
Crusaders – Try: Matt Todd; Conversion: Tom Taylor; Penalties: Tom Taylor 4.