Crusaders at shortest odds to win Super Rugby title as they beat Chiefs in Suva
OPINION: Catch the Crusaders if you can.
The 31-24 win over the Chiefs in Suva on Friday night didn't come easily, and the loss of midfielder Ryan Crotty with concussion means another All Black joins the list of wounded, but the value of this victory cannot be understated.
Not only have the unbeaten Crusaders, who have now recorded 12 wins, retained pole position in Super Rugby, they have also kept their closest rivals, the Lions, who play the Bulls this weekend, at arm's length.
The Crusaders, who were unable to start No 7 Matt Todd because of lingering concussion symptoms, now sit on 54 points, followed by the Lions (46) and Chiefs (43).
From a psychological perspective, the Crusaders must feel a million bucks. The triumph didn't just snap a four-game losing streak against the side from Hamilton, it means they have now collected the scalps of all four of their New Zealand rivals.
Just as importantly, it means they can also continue to control their own destiny ahead of the playoffs. The recipe for success is simple: just keep on winning and focus on playing in Christchurch during the finals.
Indeed, for long periods, this was the Chiefs we have come to know, and fear, and although combative in the set pieces they made too many errors at key moments and were burnt by the Crusaders' daring counter-attacks.
The attrition rate for both teams forced combinations to be snapped, the Chiefs losing backs Sam McNicol and Stephen Donald with concussion and the Crusaders farewelling No 8 Jordan Taufua with what appeared to be a leg complaint.
Crotty left the park in the 18th minute following a head knock, failing to return after a concussion test.
Yet the beauty of this contest was that both backlines kept trying to play in front of an enthusiastic crowd who cheered and bellowed with delight no matter what colours the ball carrier was wearing.
A couple of the Crusaders tries were crackers. Richie Mo'unga accelerated into a gap for a searing run in the second half, a movement that eventually led to a try to replacement hooker Ben Funnell, but it was the earlier one scored by fullback David Havili that will dominate the highlights reels.
The Crusaders counter-attacked from inside their own half, the ball popped between several sets of mitts - and the run by Seta Tamanivalu had the locals roaring with delight - before Havili sprinted across the chalk.
If you want an idea of how tough this competition is on the players. Just think about the climbing number of injuries, and how the coaches have to keep scratching around for replacements.
Crusaders coach Scott Robertson, having been forced to withdraw Todd, had to recruit Tasman loose forward Vernon Fredericks to sit on the bench and he took the park in the final minutes.
Fredericks' story is a good one. A few years ago he had to have a scan because he was suffering concussions. It was discovered he had a two-centimetre cyst in his brain, had it removed and was soon back playing the game he loves.
It's the sort of story that can inspire footy players to play out of their skins. The Crusaders are doing their bit in that regard.
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; Cruden, Damian McKenzie con) HT: 13-17.