Defence and solo brilliance drives Chiefs win
The Chiefs have proven again that defence wins championships - or certainly puts teams in a position to win them.
The 20-19, two-tries-to-one Super Rugby semi-final victory over the star-studded Crusaders at Waikato Stadium on Saturday night will be remembered for the individual brilliance on the part of Lelia Masaga and Aaron Cruden that produced the Chiefs' two tries.
But it was the defence that kept the Crusaders to just one super solo effort by All Blacks fullback Israel Dagg that has to get much of the credit.
"That stuff leading into Aaron's try was the result of our defence and while we got caught out a couple of times, on the whole there were just some fantastic moments defensively," Chiefs head coach Dave Rennie said.
"I'm really proud of them."
And Cruden was quick to acknowledge also the part their defence, which helped them win last year's title and got them No 1 seeding for this year's players, had played on Saturday night.
"[My try] was just one of those opportunistic moments and it did come from our defence - a great series of dominant tackles there forced them to chuck it a little bit wider than they probably wanted to and I was able to pick up the plums in the end," Cruden said.
A couple of minutes before his pivotal intercept try that put the Chiefs out to 20-9 with his conversion, Cruden prevented one on the line at the other end of the field with his tackle and rated that higher than his own five-pointer.
"We were able to get a few points today but it was defence that probably won us this game - just applying a little bit of pressure, especially when we knew the Crusaders had quality right across the board and were also trying to set up for a few dropped goals."
Wayne Smith is the assistant coach charged with putting together the Chiefs' defence and Cruden insisted a lot of the credit had to go to him for his work over the last two seasons.
"He really instils that mana, that hunger or desire in all the boys to keep getting up and making those tackles.
"We needed that again tonight as the Crusaders really stretched us at times, but our desperation to get back and try and hold them out really was shown out there.
"It's all about attitude and effort and with those things you really can only measure yourself. I think there's a few boys in that locker room pretty pleased with the effort they put in.
"We haven't quite hit our straps this season and probably didn't again tonight but we were still able to get the W at the end of 80 minutes."
However, while defence has again been a success for the Chiefs their set-piece is going to be tested by the Brumbies in this Saturday night's final and they need to sort out a wobbly lineout that coughed up four or five throws to the Crusaders in the first half of the semifinal.
Rennie put the problems down to lack of combination in the first half, the players having slightly tweaked some of the variations while hooker Hika Elliot missed training through food poisoning late last week.
"It was more of the combination of hooker and the lifters and jumpers so in the second half they went back to doing things reasonably simply and they were pretty effective in the second half," Rennie said.
Young Chiefs lock Brodie Retallick said the quick nature of the opening 10 minutes or so had added to the confusion with early fatigue muddling some of the thinking of players.
"That's something we can sort out and get right for next weekend. We talked during the week that if we weren't right on the money the Crusaders would be there and they did manage to pick off a couple," Retallick said.
It was a combination of timing being slightly out early on and throwing to the wrong areas, but that was sorted out at halftime and things went smoother in the second half.
In fact Retallick felt the Chiefs pack got on top of the Crusaders in the second half, lifted by both their successful defensive efforts and Masaga's outstanding try where he smashed through George Whitelock and a couple of other Crusaders near the line to put the home side in front for the first time 11 minutes into the second spell.
"Coming out of halftime we had said we wanted to score first and the first thing we did was give away a penalty so when [Masaga] scored it put us right back in the game and changed the momentum," Retallick said.