Crusaders clinch Kiwi cracker

The Crusaders hung on for a 26-19 win over the Chiefs in a fast-paced match in Hamilton.

It was a typical display by the Chiefs and an atypical performance by the Crusaders that made for an erratic but entertaining match. The Chiefs looked to play at a lively tempo, forgoing the formalities of lineouts in an attempt to catch the normally solid Saders defensive line unawares. The Crusaders responded with some impressive counter-attacking movements, but will be concerned with their inconsistent showing on defence.

A clamour of cowbells accompanied Stephen Donald’s second penalty as the Chiefs started brilliantly into the wind. They seemed to have tightened their approach and their defence were focused on the source of the Crusaders’ power – Dan Carter. But the opening minutes were no sign of things to come, as the hosts reverted to their unstructured style moments later.

A quick lineout in their own 22 was turned over, and a sustained build-up culminated in a linebreak by Crusaders fullback Jared Payne. Scrumhalf Kahn Fotuali’i was outstanding in support, and the Crusaders took the lead against the run of play.

The Chiefs’ lineout struggled with Aled de Malmanche failing to find his jumpers regularly. Their scrum was also outplayed, and they were turned over at the breakdown far too often. Their tendency to commit the bare minimum at ruck time meant they were often isolated, and one such turnover led to Fotuali’i's second try. The Crusaders broke down the short side and again it was the scrumhalf’s support running that resulted in reward.

The Crusaders were equally poor at the lineout, and while Ti’i Paulo is good in the loose, he’s a liability at this set-piece. Their defence was uncharacteristically porous. They were able to snuff a Brendon Leonard break early in the first half, but a powerful surge by Colin Bourke paid dividends for the Chiefs. The ball floated to Donald who found Richard Kahui with a neat offload, and with one defensive lapse the hosts were back in the match.

Carter kicked a penalty to extend the Saders’ lead to 23-16, an advantage they managed to retain going into the shed. The three-pointer took Carter past Andrew Mehrtens as the second-highest point scorer in Super Rugby, the first being the Brumbies’ Stirling Mortlock. Two conversions and four penalties saw Carter end the match on 996 points.

The All Blacks pivot missed another difficult attempt just after half-time, but the Crusaders’ relentless march toward the Chiefs’ line proved fruitful in the 54th minute. At 26-16, the Crusaders had established a comfortable cushion, but their approach was still too erratic.

The wet conditions and importance of this match would necessitate a territory based approach. The Chiefs were trying to run everything out of their own half, and their set-piece was struggling. All the Crusaders needed to do was kick for field-position and apply the squeeze.

But the Crusaders’ own lineout woes continued, replacement Corey Flynn faring little better than Paulo with the feed. They couldn’t control the ball through the phases either, several promising surges into the red zone undone by elementary errors. When they finally did manage to keep it with the forwards and slow the game down, they conceded a penalty at the ensuing 5m scrum.

A long-range penalty by Donald set up a thrilling final six minutes, and a missed drop attempt by Carter handed the Chiefs one last opportunity. They managed to play themselves into a position where they had a scrum 7m from the Crusaders line, but were subsequently penalised for a front-row infringement.

Coach Todd Blackadder will argue an away-win is massive, but a close analysis of the match footage will reveal that the Saders’ shortcomings cost them a bonus point. The Crusaders won’t have it so easy against teams with better defensive lines and set-piece structures.

By Jon Cardinelli