Crusaders pip Chiefs in scintillating Super Rugby clash in Suva
Yes, bring in the kava boys.
Crusaders coach Scott Robertson knows his side is far from sewing up a Super Rugby championship just yet, but a sip of the strong stuff wasn't going to go down half bad after a gutsy 31-24 win over the Chiefs in Fiji on Friday night.
It's now a stunning 12 wins from 12 for the Crusaders, after a spirited second-half comeback in front of 17,000 at ANZ Stadium in Suva saw them extend their lead at the top of the New Zealand conference to 11 points.
The Chiefs had looked on track to inflict the first wounds of their season, but not even their efforts - four tries to three, in fact - could go rewarded with anything more than a losing bonus point, having led 17-13 at halftime and looking the dominant force.
With a try-of-the-season contender finished by David Havili, the Crusaders were sparked to life, and yet again took hold of the tight moments - meeting Robertson's second-half directives.
"Take opportunities was the biggest thing from us," he said of the halftime message. "And not to give them any poor kick-chase options, because we exited poorly lots of times, which gave them a chance to attack."
Though their much-vaunted forward pack came up against sterner stuff in terms of the Chiefs' unit, the Crusaders still laid good ball for the likes of centre Jack Goodhue, who continues to impress in spades, while the ever-growing stature of first five-eighth Richie Mo'unga saw him end the game as the dominant No 10, after Aaron Cruden had been so impressive earlier on.
"He played like an All Black tonight," Robertson said of his pivot. "He was clutch, he kicked well, he ran the game well. Obviously he's got great feet and he's quick, but he was tough, he made his tackles when needed to."
The Crusaders were behind the eight-ball even before kickoff, forced into a late change, with Matt Todd not sufficiently recovering from his head knock from last weekend, which had Pete Samu moving from blindside to openside, Heiden Bedwell-Curtis promoted to start in No 6 and Vernon Fredericks onto the bench.
It wasn't to be the only concussion drama, both teams losing a midfielder early - Sam McNicol and Ryan Crotty - before McNicol's replacement Stephen Donald suffered the same fate early in the second half, while Jordan Taufua limped off with around half an hour still left. The health of the head-knocked trio was still up in the air immediately post-game, though Robertson allayed fears on Taufua.
"He's ok, it was a combination of fatigue, cramp, being cleaned out at the jackal, losing about 10kg of sweat, and playing every minute of the last three games."
Nothing a bit of kava won't fix.
"Oh, look, you know, recovery... we might see how we go tonight, we've got an eight-day turnaround," Robertson mused. "But, look, one thing I want to do is the boys to enjoy each other's company, and be responsible, and kava might be a way of doing that."
While it's all fun in Crusader-land, on the other side of the coin, the Chiefs will be a frustrated lot, with this game, that they opted to shift from Hamilton, putting them well behind the eight-ball for a home quarterfinal, despite it only being their second loss of the season.
Coach Dave Rennie saw plenty of good stuff, but they have now been made aware of where the bar is at.
"I couldn't fault the effort, we just needed to be more clinical when we had opportunities," Rennie said. "We got four tries tonight, but we probably left a couple out there.
"I thought we played reasonably well in the first half, we attacked pretty well and got the ball in behind them, we were just a yard off things second half. We were a bit slow to reposition, we had some opportunities, but their line speed put us under a bit more heat, we probably kicked away a little bit of ball under that pressure.
"They're a good pack, and they caused a bit of damage post-tackle where we lost a few races getting in there to really get quick ball and put them under a bit more pressure second half."
The Chiefs brace for another local derby next weekend, against the Blues in Auckland, while the Crusaders travel to Melbourne to face the Rebels.
Crusaders 31 (Heiden Bedwell-Curtis, David Havili, Ben Funnell tries; Richie Mo'unga 2 con, 4 pen) Chiefs 24 (Tim Nanai-Williams, James Lowe, Kane Hames, Aaron Cruden tries; Aaron Cruden con, Damian McKenzie con). HT: 13-17.