Tasman wing James Lowe became a Chiefs hero with a 79th minute runaway intercept try to give his team an unlikely 18-10 victory over the Crusaders in Christchurch last night.
It was an incredibly intense opening to the 2014 Super Rugby competition and the defending champion Chiefs, hit by mounting injuries and facing heavy penalty, possession and territory counts, still managed to grab a victory.
Again it was that amazing Wayne Smith-coached defence and the Chiefs' much talked about mana that shone through.
Chiefs coach Dave Rennie remarked his side only had about 33 per cent possession and ranked it one of his men's most memorable defensive displays.
"I think so because it was against such a good side. To play without so much pill - there was some pretty miraculous stuff going on in there."
The Chiefs were ahead 8-0 at the interval thanks to a brilliant try by former Crusader Robbie Fruean. There was also the matter of Crusaders first five-eighth Tyler Bleyendaal missing five penalty kicks.
The home side dominated territory and possession and looked to have a clear edge at set-piece time, particularly in the scrums.
Fruean's try came just nine minutes into the game from a counter-attack of sorts, stemming from a quick lineout throw off a deep clearing kick from Crusaders fullback Israel Dagg.
Winger Asaeli Tikoirotuma brought the necessary injection of straight quick running, he passed to co-captain Liam Messam and he put Fruean away down the left touchline where the giant centre got rid of three would-be tacklers, one after the other.
Winger Johnny McNicholl, Bleyendaal and even skipper Richie McCaw were all pushed off as Fruean dashed into the left corner.
First-five Aaron Cruden missed the wide-angled conversion just to the left but that was nothing compared to his Crusaders counterpart Bleyendaal, who was astray with penalty kicks in the 12th, 16th, 23rd, 34th and 42nd minutes.
Meanwhile, Cruden got a second chance at goal in the 39th minute and made no mistake.
There was no choice for Todd Blackadder and his fellow Crusaders coaches - they had to change their kicker and brought on All Black Tom Taylor to replace Bleyendaal immediately after halftime.
The Chiefs, having already lost No 8 Kane Thompson to injury in the 18th minute, were further weakened for the start of the second spell with tighthead prop Ben Tameifuna in the sin-bin for the best part of the first 10 minutes.
But it was the Chiefs who had the first scoring chance with another scything counter-attack from their own 22, Tikoirotuma playing a key role to put Cruden away only to see the little pivot spill the ball just short of the line.
Two minutes later Cruden was at it again, carving through, finding August Pulu with a pop pass and then a double turnover leading to a heated attack on the Crusaders' line only for George Whitelock to foul professionally to stop a scoring chance.
Whitelock was marched to the bin by referee Chris Pollock and Cruden kicked the goal for an 11-0 lead to the Chiefs.
Everything seemed to be going the Chiefs' way but All Blacks lock Sam Whitelock decided to take things into his own hands, grabbing a two-handed lineout throw, shrugging off his opposite Mike Fitzgerald and racing 20m to score.
Taylor made no mistake with the conversion and suddenly the home side were back in the game, just four points in arrears at 11-7, however, the Chiefs got Tameifuna back soon after.
Midway through the half a nasty head clash between replacement tighthead prop Ben Afeaki and Brodie Retallick saw both fail concussion tests and removed from the engine room, with Tameifuna and injured flanker Tevita Koloamatangi back on.
The Chiefs clung to their narrow lead and were down on firepower. The Crusaders started to get on a roll, but Taylor missed their seventh penalty as the count mounted against the Chiefs and then a handling error by Luke Whitelock slowed that roll.
Koloamatangi could not last with his badly cramped legs and young reserve hooker Nathan Harris was run on at flanker as the Crusaders attacked in the right corner from their set piece.
With 10 minutes to go they were hanging on by their fingernails but the gutsy and desperate defence kept shining through.
But as the Crusaders attacked the left corner Lowe pounced on the pass of Nafi Tuitavake to Corey Flynn and raced the length of the field for the match winner, Cruden denying the Crusaders a point with his conversion from near the touchline.
Earlier Brad Webber took his place on the bench as replacement halfback with Tawera Kerr-Barlow a late scratching due to a Thursday training injury.
Chiefs 18 (Robbie Fruean, James Lowe tries; Aaron Cruden conversion, 2 penalty goals) Crusaders 10 (Sam Whitelock try; Tom Taylor con, pen). HT: 8-0
- © Fairfax NZ News
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