Terrific Chiefs trade places with Crusaders

SWEET AS: Chiefs Aaron Cruden, left, and Tim Nanai-Williams celebrate after beating the Crusaders in Christchurch.
SWEET AS: Chiefs Aaron Cruden, left, and Tim Nanai-Williams celebrate after beating the Crusaders in Christchurch.

Somewhere this decade the Chiefs and Crusaders have swapped identities - a scenario vividly portrayed in Friday night's remarkable Super Rugby season-opener in Christchurch.

Somehow the Chiefs won 18-10 despite being restricted to the rugby equivalent of crumbs from the Crusaders' table. By coach Dave Rennie's count his team had around 32 percent possession, yet they bookended the match with tries that put a serious dent in the fortress that is Christchurch's post-earthquake pop-up stadium.

The Red and Blacks won all nine matches there last season and dropped only one - against the Hurricanes in 2012 - since making it their new home. That number now doubles after the Chiefs found a way to win through tenacity, tackling and terrific commitment.

These were attributes you used to equate with the Crusaders through their golden period in the late-90s and 2000s. It was they who would soak up huge periods of pressure, and somehow win matches they had no right to. It was they you associated with words like character, gutsiness, defiance. It was they who would clinically kick the goals and wear you down three points at a time.

The Chiefs, on the other hand, used to be the team that would give it a whirl and rattle the cage when things were humming but lacked the core characteristics required to grind out the wins to be a contender.

But over the previous two championship seasons the Chiefs, under their outstanding coaching crew, have morphed into a group with tremendous resolve, unity and structure on defence that means they are always in matches. They also have an uncanny ability to turn under-achievers elsewhere (exhibit A, Robbie Fruean) into world-beaters - another trait once a Crusaders forte.

They have their days as an attacking force, and have some wonderfully instinctive players, but the one thing they do week in week out is put bodies on the line, play hard for each other and trust their defensive system will repel more than it lets through.

Sure enough on Friday it was the Crusaders who spurned chance after chance, missing five straight first-half penalties (Tyler Bleyendaal will wear out the counselling couch getting over that), two more after the break, and failed to convert a mountain of pressure into even a molehill of points.

"It was incredibly gutsy. We gave away far too many penalties and it gave them field position and opportunities to kick for goal. We played a lot without the pill and lost key players throughout, so it was a hell of an effort from 23 guys," coach Dave Rennie said.

He had no hesitation rating it one of his side's more remarkable victories in recent years, hailing some "pretty miraculous stuff" as wave after wave of Red and Black attack was repelled. "You couldn't ask for more from a character point of view," he said.

The win did come at a cost with the Chiefs dressing-room resembling a casualty ward after reserve fullback James Lowe snaffled that late intercept and dashed 80 metres to deny - with a little help from Aaron Cruden - the Crusaders a bonus point.

The Chiefs had lost halfback Tawera Kerr-Barlow (ankle) before kickoff and saw Mils Muliaina (elbow), Kane Thompson (groin), Brodie Retallick and Ben Afeaki (concussion) and Augustine Pulu (knee) all go down through a gruelling 80 minutes. Third-string flanker Tevita Kolomatangi also lost his battle against cramp.

Muliaina's elbow could be "long term" while further assessment will be needed to determine the extent of the other damage. The Chiefs being the Chiefs (or the Crusaders?) will simply shrug and get on with it.

"There's a lot of belief here, and we've certainly got a group of guys who work hard for each other and are prepared to empty the tank," Rennie said. They will also address their deficiencies - set piece, the breakdown, ball-retention - and round out their game.

The Crusaders, meanwhile, have some work to do. Their forwards were dominant and Rey Lee-Lo had a promising debut in midfield but their attack was too lateral, too indirect and the handling errors came far too frequently.

"We didn't start, we didn't build pressure and we made a lot of mistakes," Blackadder lamented. "We had our chances but didn't execute at the right time and didn't keep the scoreboard ticking over either. We've got a few questions that need to be answered."

The return of Kieran Read this week is timely. A visit to the Blues suddenly looks a little daunting.

Sunday Star Times