Chiefs score first-up away win over Crusaders
Rookie James Lowe was the hero as the Chiefs snared a dramatic 18-10 victory over the Crusaders at AMI Stadium tonight.
It was a remarkable victory by the back-to-back champions as Dave Rennie's side played the great majority of this match under pressure, under the cosh and under a seemingly mesmerising possession spell from the Crusaders.
But with the Crusaders attacking late, trying to turn a 10-11 deficit into victory, Tasman star Lowe snatched a Nafi Tuitavake pass out of the air to dash 80 metres and score a seven-pointer that denied the Red and Blacks not just victory, but any points out of the contest whatsoever.
Incredibly, the Crusaders had dominated this contest almost from go to whoa, but got nothing out of it as the Chiefs showed that indeed defence does win these big matches between competition heavyweights. Well, that and a catalogue of handling errors from the dominant home side.
There was nothing pretty in this stirring but rust-ridden contest between two teams who will get a heck of a lot better before this competition is said and done, but it was a match the Chiefs will take a lot more from than their staunch southern rivals.
The Crusaders were dominant in their possession and territory game, but could not convert all their pressure into the points their coach would have desired; while the Chiefs' tackling and tenacity was right up where it needed to be for a side which was forced to survive on the rugby equivalent of starvation rations.
And in the end, tries to Lowe and a fabulous early effort by former hometown hero Robbie Fruean were enough to win the night for the Chiefs. The Crusaders could have - probably should have - scored a handful of tries, but had to make do with Sam Whitelock's fabulous individual effort early in the second half.
It was not enough on a night when Blackadder's men made too many basic errors to deliver the result required.
They weren't helped either by a first-half goalkicking nightmare from Tyler Bleyendaal - mercifully subbed at the break - with the first-choice No 10 missing all five of his shots at goal in a tryless first half for the Crusaders who trailed 8-0 at the change-around.
What an opening statement it had been by Fruean as he launched a blockbusting run down the left touchline against his old team, bumping off three would-be tacklers to score a try Jonah Lomu would have been proud to call his own.
Johnny McNicholl was the principal offender, just seven minutes in, but very little of the Crusaders' work on this tight, trampling run by Fruean would have passed Blackadder's scrutiny when he ran his eye over the video.
It gave the Chiefs, who soaked up a fair amount of early pressure, a quick 5-0 lead they would have been delirious to take.
Bleyendaal then missed three straight penalties from testing angles and distances as the Crusaders continued to dominate possession through the first half, and committed the cardinal sin when he failed to convert his fourth attempt, from pretty much in front after Jamie Mackintosh was pinged for a late hit on McCaw.
It then got worse for the Crusaders, rampant on everything but the scoreboard, when lock Dom Bird was yellow carded for playing the ball on the deck in the 36th minutes, and Cruden soon after stretched the lead to 8-0 with his only penalty of the half.
Bleyendaal - surely looking for a hole to swallow him up - got one more shot right on halftime from just shy of 50 metres, but managed to miss his fifth straight penalty attempt of the first 40 - though Chiefs prop Ben Tameifuina was despatched to keep Bird company in the bin for a similar on-the-deck offence.
Cruden extended the Chiefs' lead to 11-0 after an eventful opening five minutes of the second half, the All Black No 10 all but scoring in the left corner after a nice break from Tikoirotuma, then slotting a penalty soon after in a play phase that saw flanker George Whitelock the second Crusader frogmarched to the bin.
But right when the Crusaders needed it, one of their classiest operators came up with a response to get the home team back in the contest just shy of the 10-minute mark.
Sam Whitelock - if not the best lock in the game, pretty close to it - soared to take a lineout 20-odd metres from the line, shrugged out of Michael Fitzgerald's tackle and then dashed in for a seven-pointer that tipped the match on its head. Tom Taylor's wide conversion put the Red and Blacks within four, at 7-11.
A late Taylor penalty put the rampant Crusaders within striking distance, but it was Lowe who would have the final say as the Chiefs drew first blood in this head to head between the two sides rated the top Kiwi contenders.
Chiefs 18 (Robbie Fruean, James Lowe tries; Aaron Cruden 2 pens, con) Crusaders 10 (Sam Whitelock try; Tom Taylor con, pen). HT: 8-0