Aaron Cruden the winning edge

PHIL GIFFORD
Last updated 08:25 28/07/2013
Chiefs vs Crusaders
PETER DRURY/Fairfax NZ Zoom
Liam Messam takes on the Crusaders defence.
Aaron Cruden
Getty Images
TOP MAN: Aaron Cruden celebrates with Liam Messam.

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OPINION: Destiny seemed to be flowing for the Crusaders.

As squads composed of entirely different players have done in the past, the Crusaders found title-winning form when it mattered, first, against the defending Chiefs in Christchurch, and then against the Reds, to the point where some people saw the semifinal in Hamilton last night as almost a formality.

Of course. A team like the Chiefs would fold, wouldn't they? A squad coached by men with the mana and football nous of Dave Rennie and Wayne Smith, captained by a player with the courage of Craig Clarke, and playing in front of a home crowd at the most intimate rugby ground in New Zealand, was always going to be easy meat. And if you believe that let's also say that in Hamilton they regard drinking Waikato Green as unmanly, and ringing a cow bell is considered a sign of deviant behaviour.

For reasons hard to understand there was a school of thought at the start of the season that the Chiefs would be lucky to reach the playoffs, much less retain the title.

With Sonny Bill Williams gone, some starry eyed experts suggested, the Chiefs didn't have the X-factor to hit the heights of 2012.

After reducing the Reds to an embarrassing state of indecision last week, this time the Crusaders struck men who contested the breakdowns, who made big tackles, and whose only signs of finals nerves were a series of wayward lineouts.

And they struck Aaron Cruden.

Unlike last week's no-contest with Quade Cooper, the great Dan Carter faced a No 10 last night wanting to be involved in the play, doubling up behind his backline, dropping back at times to field long kicks, but never using the backfield as a place of refuge.

Ewen Mackenzie may be a Cooper fan, but in his heart of hearts he would know that the Wallabies would suddenly become a true force in Bledisloe Cup games if he had a player with Cruden's grit and gifts.

Off the field, Cruden would never stand out in a crowd. In a game dominated by men who are basically giants he's normal sized, and not notably muscle-bound.

But physically he's surprisingly strong for his size, and, as Wayne Smith said to me early in the year, "There's steel in Aaron."

In the Chiefs' awards during the week, Cruden won the coaches' award for best player, the fans' award for best player, and would, no doubt would have cleaned up if there had been another 20 categories to place him in.

When the Crusaders have run away with matches the tight five have given their 8/9/10 strike force a fast, forward moving platform to work from.

Give, as we saw last night, an attacking genius like Israel Dagg, just the hint of open space, and he'll turn the opportunity into points.

But last night the slog up front was grim, and, most importantly, it was even.

Winning a turnover against the swarming Chiefs forwards was as hard and painful as fossicking in a wasps' nest with bare hands.

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You know with a kicker like Dan Carter on the field the score will be close, but in the end the prize was close, but not close enough.

The loss in the final in 2011 was devastating to the Crusaders, but it's possible last night's will hurt even more.

There were good logical reasons for the Crusaders to go into the game as favourites.

But logic didn't worry the Chiefs, and on the evidence of this performance the worrying should be done by whoever they face next Saturday.

- Waikato

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