RYAN VREDE reports on a compelling spectacle in which the Crusaders survived a late onslaught to win 28-21 against the Chiefs in Hamilton.
This match lacked for nothing, purists and thrill-seekers alike having plenty to satisfy their respective tastes. An excellent advertisement for Super Rugby and a showcase of everything that is great about New Zealand rugby, this match kept you riveted until the very end, where the Saders’ refusal to allow their determined opponents a path to goal was heroic.
Brutal collisions, breathtaking individual and collective skills, appreciable tactical intelligence, resillience and passion, bags of it, this match made you wish the suits at Sanzar would put aside commercial interests and personal aspirations and reduce the number of teams in the tournament, pitting only the strongest teams against each other so that these types of showcases become more commonplace, not rare gems in an otherwise barren landscape.
That fanciful idea aside, the Saders did much to advance their cause for a play-off spot. This was always going to be the measure of their credentials and establish whether they are genuine contenders or just posturing pretenders. There can be no question now that they have all the attributes of champions. If they realise that goal it will have to be through a number of away wins like this one, but you wouldn’t bet against them.
Chiefs flyhalf Aaron Cruden nearly got his side off to the perfect start when he broke free early in the match, only to be scragged short of the tryline. The youngster’s transition from a talented but raw pivot into a truly world-class one is progressing nicely. Experience will refine him, but he is already a formidable opponent and indispensable asset to his franchise.
He got the scoreboard going with a penalty, but the Saders dominated for a large period thereafter, feeding off numerous Chiefs errors. The hosts look back at that passage as being decisive to the outcome.
Dan Carter banked a penalty to level the scores and soon thereafter converted a Kieran Read try in which they kept the ball alive brilliantly through multiple phases. Cruden responded with a penalty, but Carter’s experience told when he dropped a goal to keep the Saders ahead.
The visitors stretched their lead to 14 points when Andy Ellis broke blind and put in a delicate grubber which rebounded off a Chiefs player into the path of Luke Ramano. The second rower scooped the loose ball up and drove over the chalk, Carter adding the extras.
But the Chiefs refused to be steamrolled, and rebounded from the Saders’ flurry with a counter of their own, Brodie Retallick powering over from close range. Cruden’s conversion was the last score of the half, the Saders leading 20-16.
There was an unrelenting urgency and intensity about both sides after the break, Ellis scoring a contentious try but the Chiefs again coming up with a telling rebuttal – Sonny Bill Williams negotiating the attention of four defenders and, clutching the ball in one hand, he reached desperately over a mass of bodies to score.
The Chiefs had opportunities to cut into the Saders’ lead, but a combination of poor decision making in good positions, a misfiring lineout and inspiring scrambling on defence denied them. They would also have hoped for a strong bench to galvanise them, and although you could not fault those players’ effort, the Saders’ mettle under pressure came to the fore to deny their determined opponents.
There was a golden opportunity with the siren having sounded, the Chiefs having created a two-man overlap. But Williams failed to pass the ball, instead going in search of his second. The play broke down and referee Steve Walsh ended a captivating contest.