Chiefs power into second straight final
Tenacity, sheer determination and a vital intercept try by Aaron Cruden booked the Chiefs a place in the Super Rugby final after they beat the Crusaders at Waikato Stadium last night.
In a pulsating semifinal, the Chiefs withstood a late comeback from the seven-time champions who were unable to capitalise on a 9-3 lead and once again choked against the New Zealand conference winners.
Crusaders first five-eighth Dan Carter had the chance to put his side into the lead with three minutes left when he snapped off a drop goal from a handy position but pushed it wide.
Now the Chiefs will host the final next weekend against the Brumbies, who beat the Bulls in Pretoria.
Chiefs right wing Lelia Masaga is known as a deadly finisher capable of twisting on a dime but it was his brute strength and determination during an 18m run that enabled him to surge through George Whitelock's tackle for the first try of the evening and put his side ahead in the 51st minute.
Cruden's conversion - he scored 15 of his side's points and slotted four of his kicks - pushed their side ahead 13-9 and they were never headed.
The Manawatu No 10 - it should be no surprise he was recently voted the Chiefs player of the year by his coaches - again proved why All Blacks fans are blessed to have him as Carter's understudy when he intercepted Ryan Crotty's pass after he had turned his pass to make the delivery.
Cruden's conversion ensured the Chiefs had scored 17 unanswered points and a 20-9 lead, forcing the Crusaders to chase the game.
The Crusaders' reply was immediate. Fullback Israel Dagg skinned three men to cross over in the corner and Carter's conversion closed the gap to just four points and what followed was what finals football is all about.
Eventually Cruden was given a chance to push his side further ahead with a penalty and missed - but Carter didn't fail with his chance to bang over a penalty to close the gap to just one point.
As softening-up periods go, there was nothing subtle about the opening 20 minutes. Although no tries were scored - the Crusaders led by two Carter penalties to Cruden's one - the two opponents kept the 24,000 fans on edge as they repeatedly banged bodies.
Chiefs lock Brodie Retallick slammed Corey Flynn off his feet with one spectacular ruck clean-out to create a turnover and later Masaga dropped his shoulder and crudely rumbled over Crotty when he steamed upfield on attack.
Yes, those sorts of collisions look great in the highlights packages, but the major issue for the Chiefs was that little was gained.
The Chiefs biggest problem was their mounting error rate in the first half; Hika Elliot was one of the easiest culprits to identify in the lineup of offenders.
When things are going wrong, life for a hooker - much like a goalie in football - can be one of the loneliest jobs in the world.
Within 30 minutes the Chiefs had lost five of their own lineouts and although the blame could also probably be apportioned to the lifters and jumpers, it was Elliot - guilty of either throwing them in wonky or too long - who copped the fans' wrath.
The turnover count was also a worrying statistic for the Chiefs as they went into the sheds at halftime. Up to 12 possessions, compared to the Crusaders seven, had been lost because of their careless lineout work, handling errors and when their scrum was decimated.
For all the Chiefs' early enterprise, they maintained possession and repeatedly questioned the Crusaders' scrambling defence; the hosts gained little interest on that investment and then opted to switch to kick more often for the remainder of the first half.
The Crusaders used Carter's boot to keep them ahead 9-3 at the break.
The playmaker kicked three of his four penalties and could have nudged the Crusaders further ahead had he not produced a worm-burner for a drop goal attempt on the stroke of halftime.
STAR MAN: Aaron Cruden. He did everything coach Dave Rennie expected of him and although he missed a late penalty and duffed a vital restart in the final minutes he proved why he is so highly rated in Chiefs country and in the Manawatu too
BIG MOMENT: Cruden's intercept try in the second half changed the momentum and forced the Crusaders to chase the game. They never recovered from having to fight back from being 20-9 down
TALKING POINT: Steve Walsh's refereeing is always controversial and last night was no different. At one stage he told Kieran Read: "Be very careful of where you are or what you're doing." No wonder Read was puzzled
Chiefs 20 (Lelia Masaga, Aaron Cruden tries; Aaron Cruden 2 con, 2 pen) Crusaders 19 (Israel Dagg try; Dan Carter con, 4 pen). HT: 3-9
Sunday Star Times