Super Rugby: Chiefs Edge Crusaders In Semi Final Thriller
by Brendan Bradford –
For the second year in a row the Chiefs and Crusaders have played the game of the season in a Super Rugby semi-final. And like 2012, the Chiefs won a nail-biter in Hamilton over their more celebrated Southern rivals.
Rebounding from a heavy defeat at the hands of the Christchurch-based side three weeks ago, the Chiefs fought back from a 9-3 halftime deficit with 17-unanswered points before the Crusaders nabbed a try and a penalty in a tense final quarter for a 20-19 fulltime score.
With the kind of passion only a local derby can conjure, this match had it all: immense skill, powerful forward play, tries, heroes and heartbreak.
The Chiefs started in typically high-octane, hard running fashion. Going wide with their first possession and taking a quick tap from a first minute penalty, the defending champions almost opened the scoring before the Crusaders had even touched the ball when flyhalf Aaron Cruden orchestrated a slick backline move on the right flank.
After repelling the early onslaught, it was the visitors who opened the scoring through a fifth minute Dan Carter penalty.
So dangerous from everywhere on the park, Crusaders centre Tom Taylor spotted a midfield gap shortly afterwards and threw a backhand offload to Israel Dagg whose attempted pass was picked off in a try-saving intercept by Charlie Ngatai.
Carter added another three pointer in the 18th minute before Cruden got the Chiefs on the scoreboard with a 35-metre effort shortly after.
Neither side was able to gain the upper hand in general play, but persistent Chiefs ill-discipline allowed Carter to notch another penalty for a 9-3 lead after half an hour.
The Chiefs lineout was off-target throughout the first half, the home-side allowing the visitors to win five against the throw and spoil several attacking opportunities while the scrum was a constant source of threat for the Crusaders. The seven time champs earned a couple of penalties and created a solid attacking threat as halfback Andy Ellis exploited the indecisiveness of the Chiefs loose-forwards at the scrum.
Carter shanked a penalty from out wide and missed a rushed drop-goal after the halftime siren to close out a tryless opening stanza.
The Crusaders flew out of the blocks in the second spell. Finding half gaps across the field, the Cantabrians marched down the pitch before Steve Walsh played an excessively long advantage and Carter missed his second kickable penalty of the game.
Cruden added a wobbly penalty in the 46th minute to narrow the gap to 9-6 before Chiefs captain Craig Clarke made a bullocking run from the kick-off and a Cruden chip kick earned a five metre attacking lineout. Ben Afeaki was held up in goal but Walsh was playing advantage and Clarke made a big call to go for another lineout. The Crusaders forwards defended the rolling maul well, but they had no answer for the quick feet of winger Lelia Masaga. One of the most elusive runners in broken play, the one-time All Black bounced off several defenders on a rampaging run to the line and a 13-9 lead.
Zac Guildford hit back immediately with a scything midfield run to evade an Afeaki tackle on halfway, before Walsh missed a glaring forward pass and the Crusaders battered away at the Chiefs line from close range. But there was no way through the stout wall of Waikato jerseys.
After making two try-saving tackles – and in the context of the match, season-saving tackles – Cruden spotted a high, floating, no-look pass from Ryan Crotty on halfway and pounced. The playmaker jolted out of the line, got a fingertip to the ball, regathered and ran 40-metres untouched to the tryline for a 20-9 advantage.
Not to be outdone in the breathtaking try-scoring stakes, Dagg broke the defence, tip-toed down the right touchline and planted the ball in a Superman-like dive just millimetres from the sideline. Carter superbly landed the sideline conversion and with 20-minutes to go, the score was 20-16. Game on.
As they’ve done for over 15-years, the Crusaders kicked into overdrive in the final quarter. The forwards began bossing the breakdown, bashing the Chiefs pack as Dagg slipped into the playmaker’s role. Carter banged over his fourth penalty to make it a one-point game with six minutes remaining and when Cruden’s restart didn’t go 10-metres, the men in red packed a scrum on halfway, grubbered into the 22 and earned an attacking lineout with four minutes left.
Carter snapped an unexpected drop goal which faded to the left and the Mooloos’ gritty defence got out of trouble. The respite was brief though, as a desperate Crusaders outfit summoned the last of their energy reserves into a final attacking raid of the season. The “CHIEFS” chant rumbled out of the stands as the fulltime siren sounded, but it was quickly replaced by the whooping and cheering of unbridled ecstasy as the Crusaders knocked on.
CHIEFS 20 (Aaron Cruden, Lelia Masaga tries; Aaron Cruden 2 cons, 2 pens) bt CRUSADERS 19 (Israel Dagg try; Dan Carter con 4 pens)