The Chiefs finished strongly to beat the Crusaders 27-21 in Christchurch on Saturday. JON CARDINELLI reports.
The Chiefs took some time to get going in this clash. They scored their first try, somewhat fortuitously, in the 32nd minute. It was only in the second half where they started to gel and their experience came to the fore.
The Crusaders dominated the scrums from the outset, winning a set-piece penalty in the second minute of the game. Debutant Richie Mo'unga then stepped up to score the Cantabrians' first points of the season.
Mo'unga looked assured behind a strong Crusaders scrum and lineout. He was well assisted by veteran scrumhalf Andy Ellis, who took some excellent options as the hosts looked to play for territory.
As expected, the Chiefs favoured a running approach. They had some luck when David Havili made an error in the 32nd minute near his own line.
The Crusaders fullback attempted to run at the advancing Chiefs players, and had the ball ripped off him by Shaun Stevenson. The Chiefs winger couldn't believe his good fortune as he strolled over for a simple try.
It was a try that sparked the game to life. The Crusaders scrum continued to apply the pressure in the lead-up to half-time. The hosts won a tighthead, and possession was shifted to Mo'unga, who showed the ball to the defender and then dived over the line for his first try. The Crusaders went into the break with a 13-8 lead.
The Chiefs scored first after half-time through centre Seta Tamanivalu, and the subsequent conversion by Damian McKenzie saw the visitors regaining the lead.
McKenzie was in fine form for the Chiefs. The fullback initiated some searing counter-attacks that fractured the Crusaders defence. He also kicked some important goals, a couple of them from halfway.
While Mo'unga missed two from the tee, he enjoyed an opportunity for redemption later in the second half. Two penalty goals by the young flyhalf edged the Crusaders into a six-point lead.
But the Chiefs hit back again. McKenzie crossed the line, and then converted his own try to propel the visitors into a 22-21 lead as the game entered the final 10 minutes. That conversion took his personal tally to 12 points.
The Crusaders panicked as the clock wound down. Mo'unga made the grave error of kicking possession away, and the Chiefs made the Crusaders pay for that mistake.
The visitors won a penalty 5m out from the tryline. With only two minutes to play, captain Sam Cane opted for the lineout. The decision was justified when the Chiefs mauled from the set piece and Cane dotted down to score.
McKenzie missed the conversion attempt, and so the Crusaders had one final crack at winning the game. However, the young and inexperienced side failed to show the necessary composure in the dying moments, and conceded possession.
With that, the game ended and the Crusaders had to be satisfied with a losing bonus point.
Crusaders – Tries: Richie Mo’unga, David Havili. Conversion: Mo’unga. Penalties: Mo’unga (3).
Chiefs – Tries: Shaun Stevenson, Seta Tamanivalu, Damian McKenzie, Sam Cane. Conversions: McKenzie (2). Penalty: McKenzie.
Crusaders – 15 David Havili, 14 Jone Macilai, 13 Sean Wainui, 12 Kieran Fonotia, 11 Nemani Nadolo, 10 Richie Mo’unga, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Tim Boys, 6 Jordan Taufua, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Scott Barrett, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Joe Moody.
Subs: 16 Ben Funnell, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Mike Alaalatoa, 19 Jimmy Tupou, 20 Reed Prinsep, 21 Leon Fukofuka, 22 Ben Volavola, 23 Johnny McNicholl.
Chiefs – 15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Shaun Stevenson, 13 Seta Tamanivalu, 12 Charlie Ngatai, 11 James Lowe, 10 Aaron Cruden (c), 9 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 8 Tom Sanders, 7 Sam Cane (c), 6 Taleni Seu, 5 Michael Allardice, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Hiroshi Yamashita, 2 Rhys Marshall, 1 Pauliasi Manu.
Subs: 16 Mitchell Graham, 17 Nathan Harris, 18 Siate Tokolahi, 19 Johan Bardoul, 20 Maama Vaipulu, 21 Brad Weber, 22 Anton Lienert-Brown, 23 Latu Vaeno.
Photo: Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images