Chiefs captain Aaron Cruden cracks cauldron
Aaron Cruden loves this captaincy lark. One game, one victory, and one pretty serious statement sent out to the rest of the Super Rugby competition.
Nine teams visited Christchurch's post-earthquake stadium last year and nine came away on the wrong side of the scoreline. On Friday night, in the opening round proper of this year's three-nation competition, the Chiefs prevailed 18-10 on the back of a cracking opening try to Robbie Fruean and a heartbreaking, bonus point-denying closer to James Lowe via the intercept.
It's only the Crusaders' second defeat since they moved there in 2012.
Cruden, the Chiefs' new co-captain, was instrumental in the dramatic victory too, showing much-needed composure, mixed with flashes of class, in the pivot as the champions soaked up a torrent of pressure from the Crusaders.
"He was huge," said Chiefs coach Dave Rennie. "He was probably unlucky not to score just after halftime [just denied in the corner by Johnny McNicholl], and he had a hot period where we had a little bit of ball and he made a couple of breaks."
It was notable, on a night when the Crusaders badly missed the direction - and goalkicking - of their own master No 10 Dan Carter, that Cruden was able to orchestrate such a notable victory for the Chiefs over a side they've now usurped as the standard-bearer in the New Zealand game.
The Chiefs have knocked the Crusaders out of this competition for the past two years, and on Friday night they took a pretty positive stride towards maintaining that dominance when they rolled their rivals on the back of little more than a third of the possession.
But equally encouraging was hearing their new young co-captain urging that the victory had to be kept in perspective. He may only be 25, and finally emerging from Carter's shadow, but he has clearly been paying attention.
"To come to this cauldron in Christchurch and get the win will do wonders for the confidence, but we need to keep our feet grounded," he said. "It was a patchy and rusty performance, so we need to put a flag in the ground and keep building from here."
Cruden said the Chiefs measured themselves on attitude and effort and felt his men stood up. "We got tested and at times we were under the pump but the boys held strong.
"It came down to our character. But moving forward it's going to be a hard old slog if we don't have the ball for long periods like [here]."
He identified the set piece and ball retention as areas needing attention.
"We'll go away and work on that and hopefully be better next week against the Highlanders."
The Chiefs already have a lengthy injury list headed by veteran Mils Muliaina's elbow, which could rule him out for a lengthy period just a game into his Kiwi comeback. Brodie Retallick and Ben Afeaki will both have concussions monitored while Tawera Kerr-Barlow (ankle), Augustine Pulu (knee) and Kane Thompson (groin) will also have to be assessed.
"The depth in this squad is a great thing and everyone understands their roles," Cruden said. "A couple of guys got thrown into positions a little unfamiliar, but they went out and did the job for us. We knew that was exactly what was going to be needed."
Cruden also revelled in the special touches applied by a couple of his outside backs. Centre Robbie Fruean scored a special opening try against his old team when he bullocked his way down the left touchline. And replacement fullback Lowe sealed the victory when he plucked Nafi Tuitavake's pass out of the air and dashed 80 metres to turn an 11-10 lead into an 18-10 victory.
"Those X-factor players are great," said Cruden. "If we can keep the ball for long periods we can give guys like that opportunities to show what they can do. But with the limited ball we had those guys came up big for us."
Crusaders skipper Richie McCaw, meanwhile, said the seven-times champions wouldn't be panicking despite such a disappointing start.
"It wasn't clinical. We had the Chiefs under pressure at times and just didn't finish. It's not as though we need to go back and start again, but we can't kid ourselves either. That's not good enough if we want to win games, and in seven days' time we're straight back into another big game against the Blues.
"We'll look at the positives, but there will be some things we need to look hard at."