The Crusaders kept their Vodacom Super Rugby title hopes alive with a 28-21 win over the Chiefs in a dramatic, high intensity game in Hamilton on Friday.
After their unexpected defeat to the Hurricanes the previous week, the Crusaders needed to win, and they did. But the Chiefs put in a huge effort to steal a draw in the final minutes of the game, and Sonny Bill Williams should kick himself for going for the try himself when a big overlap presented itself outside him near the tryline off what was to prove the last move of the game.
It was in fact an extended last movement, with referee Steve Walsh pushing it out by awarding the Chiefs two penalties as they showed amazing discipline and skill in retaining the ball through several phases as they bashed away at the Crusaders line. Williams wasn’t far away when he made his dash with the rest of the backs calling for the ball on his outside, but he went over the line on his back and the Crusaders burst into spontaneous celebration as Walsh blew the final whistle.
The game was played at high octane and intensity from both sides throughout the 80 minutes and was a great advert for the quality of New Zealand rugby at the moment as well as the depth of talent available to that country. However it was also not a game without controversy, and if the Crusaders were angry with referee Bryce Lawrence last week, this time they had reason to be thankful to him in his capacity as a TMO.
Lawrence made the right call in the first half when he adjudged that Kieran Read had dotted down in the 11th minute. The ball went forward as he was going over, but off the hands of Chiefs scrumhalf Tawera Kerr-Barlow, and he was able to retain enough control of the ball to be awarded the try. The next call from Lawrence was far more debatable, however, with Crusaders scrumhalf Andy Ellis clearly dotting down short before lock Sam Whitelock charged in and added his bulk to force Ellis over the line in what was clearly a second movement.
Had that try not been awarded, the Crusaders may well not have won and would not be back in the strong position to strike for a top six spot that they are in now. It certainly wasn’t a result that the Sharks and Bulls, who play later on Friday, would have liked, as it puts them both under intense pressure as they battle for a place in the playoffs.
The Crusaders are now seven points clear of the Sharks and two ahead of the Bulls in what is effectively fourth place on the overall log.
However it was a good result for the Stormers, who can go top if they win and pick up what for them would be a unique four-try bonus point against the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein on Saturday. They would be in pole position by virtue of their winning more games than the Chiefs, who have now lost three times to the Stormers’ twice.
What the Stormers should know though is that both New Zealand teams are going to be a tough nut to crack if they are encountered in the playoff stages, with the Crusaders rediscovering that powerful scrum that swept the Cape team away in last year’s semifinal at Newlands.
Considering how the Chiefs struggled both in the set scrums, where even there put-ins came back in static fashion, and in the lineouts, where numerous balls were poached by the Crusaders, the Chiefs did well to come so close. After an initial flurry which netted them the first penalty that was kicked by Aaron Cruden to make it 3-0 early in the game, the Chiefs never had the benefit of a put-in at a scrum again until the half hour mark.
And with all the lineouts going the Crusaders way in that time, the Chiefs had nothing to launch off and it was small wonder they trailed 20-6, with the first Crusaders try coming off a superb buildup in the 11th minute in which Zac Guildford did well to keep the ball in play as he flew down the left and then the ball went right for Read to score near the corner flag.
It was soon after they had finally been presented with a put-in at the scrum that the Chiefs scored their first try, and appeared it to galvanise them, with Kerr-Barlow matching Ellis’s genius by producing a little show of the ball that drew the Crusaders defenders just enough to create the space through which lock Brodie Retallick surged.
Then came a break out from loosehead prop Sona Taumalolo in which the big man showed an impressive turn of speed in a race with Israel Dagg that nearly resulted in a try and which further roused the home crowd. A Cruden penalty made it 20-16 to Crusaders at halftime but it should have been 20-19 as Cruden missed a kickable penalty on the halftime whistle.
The disputed Ellis try 12 minutes into the second half re-established a buffer for the Crusaders, though they weren’t helped by Carter missing a regulation conversion. Carter missed three kicks at goal on the night.
That though was just the cue for Sonny Bill Williams to produce one of those power plays only he is capable of, with the centre using his immense strength to surge through five tacklers and reach over the bodies strewn across the tryline to dot down. Carter was on target with a penalty to make it a seven point game going into the final quarter, and that was the way it stayed until the exciting finish.
Chiefs – Tries: Brodie Retallick, Sonny Bill Williams. Conversion: Aaron Cruden. Penalties: Aaron Cruden(3)
Crusaders – Tries: Kieran Read, Luke Romano, Andy Ellis. Conversions: Dan Carter (2). Drop goal: Dan Carter. Penalties: Dan Carter (2).