Chiefs win titanic battle to reach final
The Chiefs will host their second Super Rugby final in as many years after somehow managing to turn the tables on the Crusaders in tonight's semifinal in Hamilton.
Willed on by a crowd of about 22,000, the home side were on the back foot early in the second half, trailing 9-3 at halftime, only to score the next 17 points, including the first two tries of the match.
Having finished the regular season top of the table, the Chiefs now have the luxury of waiting at home in Hamilton for either the Bulls or Brumbies to travel from South Africa for the final, just as the Sharks had to do last year.
The Crusaders' lineout proved a real weapon in the first spell, stealing four of the Chiefs' throw-ins and losing just one of their own, and their scrum provided a solid platform.
But their points all came from the boot of Dan Carter, who kicked three out of four penalty shots at goal as the home side's discipline let them down in key defensive situations.
And the Chiefs' error rate was just too high for them to ram home some promising early attacks, while the bounce of the ball evaded fullback Gareth Anscombe when a chargedown promised to deliver a try.
The home side resorted to a disappointing early kicking game in the second quarter that was nowhere near as effective as their ball carrying and wide attacking tactics had been earlier on.
That followed one of the Crusaders' best scoring chances, albeit from long range, when Tom Taylor broke out of his own 22 and put All Blacks fullback Israel Dagg into space. It took a clever piece of defence from Chiefs centre Charlie Ngatai to intercept as Dagg tried to put winger Tom Marshall away down the right flank.
The Crusaders' three penalty goals all came within an eight-minute period through the middle of the half and Aaron Cruden's sole three-pointer also came during that time.
Carter had a crack at a dropped goal after the halftime hooter after a long and patient buildup but he hit it poorly and it skimmed away low and to the right.
The Chiefs dodged a bullet a couple of minutes after the break when, under penalty advantage, prop Wyatt Crockett picked and went through the middle of ruck and put skipper Kieran Read away only for defending winger Asaeli Tikoirotuma to knock the ball up in the air and regather.
To add insult to the Crusaders' injury Carter hit an upright with his kick at goal and Cruden made no mistake with one of his own a minute later to make it 9-6.
That seemed to lift the home side and skipper Craig Clarke sparked a counterattack, the Crusaders were pinned back in their own corner, a penalty kick at goal was turned down in favour of a lineout and winger Lelia Masaga produced a piece of individual magic, smashing through George Whitelock and two other defenders to score handy to the posts.
The Cruden conversion for a 13-9 lead to the Chiefs was a formality but there was no time to reflect on that as the Crusaders immediately launched a dangerous attack, only to see it founder after immense home defence.
As if that wasn't enough of a dagger blow to the TAB favourites, big defence by the Chiefs forced a passing error by the visitors and Cruden snatched the intercept and raced 40m to score by the posts and convert.
At 20-9 the Chiefs suddenly had the upper hand, but a piece of superb pace and swerve from Dagg to score in the corner two minutes later ensured the Crusaders stayed in the hunt and Carter converted from wide out to narrow the gap to 20-16.
Cruden had the chance to put the lead out to seven points with 10 minutes to play but his 34m kick from by the touchline just sailed wide of the righthand upright.
Carter didn't make the same mistake four minutes later when replacement halfback August Pulu conceded a foolish penalty to close it to 20-19 and Cruden's restart didn't go 10m.
That meant field position again for the visitors and Carter had an early crack at a dropped goal from a lineout but it went wide and the Chiefs' defence again proved the key at the end.
Chiefs 20 (Lelia Masaga, Aaron Cruden tries; Aaron Cruden 2 conversions, 2 penalty goals) Crusaders 19 (Israel Dagg try; Dan Carter conversion, 4 penalty goals). Halftime 9-3.