RYAN VREDE reports on a compelling semi-final in which the Chiefs explored new depths in their game to beat the fancied Crusaders 20-17 in Hamilton.
These teams produced an epic three weeks ago at this venue, and, fittingly, considering the magnitude of the occasion, elevated their games to deliver one of the tensest (most tense) semi-finals in Super Rugby history.
It lacked for nothing, not technical skill, tactical intelligence, brutality, breathless passages, breathtaking individual skills. Neither the intangibles, like inspiring resilience and the desperation that accompanies that a deeply-rooted desire for victory, reflected in the pursuit of attacking and defensive inches. Nothing. Ultimately the Chiefs were marginally better, but that’s all they needed to be.
The big name players had their moments, Cruden exhibiting once more that he is fast evolving into a flyhalf of the absolute highest quality, Williams showing his fire-proof temperament and McCaw valiantly attempting to rouse his men through deed and words. But tellingly the Crusaders’ fulcrum, Dan Carter, fell well short of his high standards, making fundamental errors and lacking presence. He can’t be blamed for the defeat, but his struggles undoubtedly contributed to it.
The Chiefs’ line speed, physicality and accuracy in defence rocked the Saders, who uncharacteristically made numerous handling errors and regularly made themselves vulnerable to being turned over by runners isolating themselves. The Saders were never allowed to settle into their pattern and were made to look decidedly ordinary for the bulk of the contest.
By contrast the Chiefs buzzed on attack for much of the first half and then sustained their defensive effort and discipline through the next 40. With regards to the former, their back division profited from the potency of the strike runners in their pack. Cruden and Carter traded penalties to get the scoreboard rolling, but Williams ignited the contest with a scything break in a move that culminated in prolific prop Sona Taumalolo burrowing over from close range. The Chiefs extended their lead in the 25th minute when Robbie Robinson blitzed the defence before Williams sniped around an unguarded ruck fringe to set up Liam Messam. Cruden converted for a comfortable 17-6 lead.
The match situation called for a rebuttal from the seven-time champions and it came just before the break, Ryan Crotty darting through a depleted defensive line to score. Carter missed the conversion but trailing by just six the Saders would have felt confident given their pedigree and superior experience.
The arm-wrestle continued after the restart, with neither side able to impose their will. Carter kicked two penalties to Cruden’s one, taking the match into the final quarter with the hosts ahead by three.
Understandably neither side were prepared to take risks with the stakes as high as they were, pragmatic play marking the closing stages. This of course was not uncharted territory for the Saders, but they were met by an irresistible force that absolutely refused to relinquish the inches the Saders sought, first to breach the tryline, then, in one final act of desperation, to set up Carter for the game-levelling drop-goal.
With every phase you could see the Chiefs’ resolve deepen. Not here. Not now. Smash. Get up. Smash. Get up. There are varying things in sport that inspire people. The determination the Chiefs showed in those dying minutes holds universal appeal. Every tackle drove the Saders further away from their goal until finally the ball was grassed under pressure.
Massive celebration. The kings are culled. The Chiefs now have to ensure they complete their ascent to the throne.