The Crusaders produced a clinical all-round performance to power their way to a 27-13 win over the Chiefs in Saturday’s semi-final in Christchurch. CRAIG LEWIS reports.
Once again, the Crusaders delivered a masterclass display of playoff rugby. The hosts were virtually impenetrable on defence, while they pounced on every point-scoring opportunity that came their way.
It enabled the Saders to comfortably claim a 16th win of this campaign. They have become the first Super Rugby side to record this number of victories in a single season, while they are one step closer to what could be a first title since 2008.
The Crusaders will now either host the Hurricanes, or travel to Johannesburg to face the Lions, with the Christchurch-based side searching for an historic eighth title after nearly a decade without any silverware.
Based on this performance, the Crusaders will feel confident they can go all the way, with the hosts playing with the power and precision of a championship team from start to finish.
Although the Chiefs displayed plenty of attacking endeavour in the opening exchanges, they lacked the necessary accuracy with ball in hand, making three handling errors in the first 10 minutes to blight their efforts.
By contrast, the first time the Crusaders entered the Chiefs’ 22 they came away with points as Richie Mo’unga popped over a penalty in the 13th minute, while a scintillating counter-attack soon after resulted in a try for scrumhalf Bryn Hall.
Yet it would be the visitors who dominated territory and possession for the remainder of the stanza. As it was, Tim Nanai-Williams seemed to have hit back timeously for the Chiefs when he went over to score just after the quarter-hour mark, but the TMO belatedly identified that he had lost the ball forward before the grounding.
It rather summed up a first period that saw the Chiefs fashion plenty of opportunities through superb ball retention, but where they failed to add the necessary finishing touches to take control of proceedings.
It was also revealing that around half-time the Crusaders had been forced to make more than triple the number of tackles compared to their opponents, and yet the only points the Chiefs had to show for their efforts were a couple of penalties converted by Damian McKenzie.
In the end, the Crusaders would have been quite grateful to take a four-point lead into half-time after staving off one final Chiefs attack before the break, which aptly epitomised their immense defensive efforts in the opening half.
It was also pressure defence that resulted in a freakish try to the Crusaders in the 49th minute, when a tackle from Mo’unga knocked the ball out of the hands of James Lowe as he sought to make a clearing kick, with the ball falling to Israel Dagg, who darted over to score.
That five-pointer handed the Saders a handy 15-6 lead, while a superb set move saw Seta Tamanivalu run a delightful line to barge over to score just before the hour mark, with the conversion opening up a 16-point buffer.
From there, the Chiefs were never likely to have the energy to launch a comeback, considering they had travelled from Cape Town to Christchurch for this encounter, with Tamanivalu well and truly wrapping up the result when he scored his second try in the 73rd minute.
Brodie Retallick did score a late consolation try for the Chiefs, but it could not detract from a Crusaders performance that sent out an emphatic statement ahead of the title decider.
Crusaders – Tries: Bryn Hall, Israel Dagg, Seta Tamanivalu (2). Conversions: Richie Mo'unga (2). Penalty: Richie Mo'unga.
Chiefs – Try: Brodie Rettalick. Conversion: Damian McKenzie. Penalties: Damian McKenzie (2).
Crusaders – 15 David Havili, 14 Israel Dagg, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 Seta Tamanivalu, 10 Richie Mo'unga, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Matt Todd, 6 Jordan Taufua, 5 Sam Whitelock (c), 4 Scott Barrett, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Joe Moody.
Subs: 16 Ben Funnell, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Michael Alaalatoa, 19 Luke Romano, 19 Pete Samu, 20 Mitchell Drummond, 21 Mitchell Hunt, 23 George Bridge.
Chiefs – 15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Tim Nanai-Williams, 13 Anton Lienert-Brown, 12 Charlie Ngatai, 11 James Lowe, 10 Aaron Cruden (co-c), 9 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 8 Michael Leitch, 7 Sam Cane (co-c), 6 Liam Messam, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Mitchell Brown, 3 Nepo Laulala, 2 Nathan Harris, 1 Kane Hames.
Subs: 16 Liam Polwart, 17 Aidan Ross, 18 Atu Moli, 19 Dominic Bird, 20 Lachlan Boshier, 21 Finlay Christie, 22 Stephen Donald, 23 Shaun Stevenson.
Photo: Marty Mellville/AFP/Getty Images