The Crusaders claimed an impressive 31-24 victory against the Chiefs in Suva on Friday. MARIETTE ADAMS reports.
In what was only the second-ever Super Rugby match played in Fiji, the Crusaders showed great mettle to overcome a stern test by the Chiefs to chalk up a 12th consecutive win of the season and extend their lead at the top of the Australasian group and New Zealand conference.
The result, coming in front of a 17,000-strong crowd, also saw the Crusaders break a four-match losing streak in this fixture, dating back to February 2015.
The Crusaders were under siege by the lethal Chiefs backline from the get-go, with Damian McKenzie and Aaron Cruden acting as the prime catalysts. However, Cruden's wayward goal-kicking, the Crusaders' set-piece dominance and solid defensive structures at key moments in the game proved decisive.
The key to the Crusaders' success so far this season has been their forward dominance. On Friday, however, the Chiefs pack matched their abrasive approach up front, and yet the Crusaders still came out on top.
For all their defensive efforts during the early stages, the Crusaders did well to come away with points on the two occasions they entered the opposition 22. Richie Mo'unga's two shots at goal put them 6-0 up, but the Chiefs, continuing with their all-out attacking approach, hit back with tries by Tim Nanai-Williams, James Lowe and Kane Hames.
The Crusaders would go on to score a try, after an excellent break from Jack Goodhue enabled flank Heidel Bedwell-Curtis to dot down under the posts. The conversion was good, but the Chiefs still managed to take a slender four-point advantage into half-time.
As they've done with all previous challengers this season, the Crusaders ground the Chiefs down and steadily strengthened their grip on the match. From defending inside their own 22, they masterfully turned defence into attack with Mo'unga flummoxing the Chiefs' backline using a superb step and run. They kept the ball alive with a series of passes to the left, before a pass to the inside allowed fullback David Havili to go under the posts and regain the lead for the Crusaders.
Another big moment in the game came shortly after, when Cruden was afforded an opportunity to put the Chiefs back in the ascendancy. The flyhalf sensationally missed from point-blank range, and to make matters worse, the Crusaders went on to score at the other end through Ben Funnnell after another Mo'unga break.
Cruden redeemed himself with a late try, which Damian McKenzie converted to set up a tight finish, but Mo'unga then slotted his fourth penalty.
There was still time for the Chiefs to launch one last attack in the hope of snatching a draw, but the Crusaders' rush defence forced them into making an error.
Chiefs – Tries: Tim Nanai Williams, James Lowe, Kane Hames, Aaron Cruden. Conversions: Aaron Cruden, Damian McKenzie.
Crusaders – Tries: Heiden Bedwell-Curtis, David Havili, Ben Funnell. Conversions: Richie Mo'unga (2). Penalties: Mo'unga (4).
Chiefs – 15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Tim Nanai-Williams, 13 Sam McNicol, 12 Anton Lienert-Brown, 11 James Lowe, 10 Aaron Cruden (cc), 9 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 8 Michael Leitch, 7 Sam Cane (cc), 6 Mitchell Brown, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Dominic Bird, 3 Nepo Laulala, 2 Nathan Harris, 1 Kane Hames.
Subs: 16 Hika Elliot, 17 Siegfried Fisi'ihoi, 18 Atu Moli, 19 Taleni Seu, 20 Liam Messam, 21 Jonathan Taumateine, 22 Stephen Donald, 23 Shaun Stevenson.
Crusaders – 15 David Havili, 14 Seta Tamanivalu, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 George Bridge, 10 Richard Mo'unga, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Jordan Taufua, 7 Matt Todd, 6 Pete Samu, 5 Sam Whitelock (c), 4 Luke Romano, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Joe Moody.
Subs: 16 Ben Funnell, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Michael Alaalatoa, 19 Quinten Strange, 20 Heiden Bedwell-Curtis, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 Mitchell Hunt, 23 Manasa Mataele.
Photo: Mark Kolbe/Getty Images