The Crusaders kept their Super Rugby title hopes alive on Friday with a crucial 28-21 victory over tournament leaders the Chiefs.
The Crusaders kept their Super Rugby title hopes alive on Friday with a crucial 28-21 win over tournament leaders the Chiefs in Hamilton.
Defeat would have left the seven-time champions facing the prospect of missing the play-offs for the first time in eleven years but four vital points ahead of a home game against the struggling Western Force next week means they are now a safe bet to make the cut.
The result is only the Chiefs' third loss this year and means the Stormers are now within striking distance of top spot in the overall standings.
With so much at stake it was always going to be an epic clash, but with competitions for All Blacks jerseys featuring across the park, even more spice was added to the fiery mixture. And the protagonists didn't disappoint.
The Crusaders raced into a 20-6 lead early on thanks to tries from Kieran Read and Luke Romano, but the Chiefs clawed their way back into contention via a touchdown from Brodie Retallick to trail 20-16 at the break.
Andy Ellis's second-half score was cancelled out by a phenomenal try from Sonny Bill Williams but the Crusaders' advantage at the set-piece and a monumental late defensive effort proved enough to keep the Chiefs at bay.
Sam Cane and Tawera Kerr-Barlow combined to allow Chiefs fly-half Aaron Cruden to open the scoring from the kicking tee soon after kick-off but the first 20 minutes belonged to the Crusaders.
Dan Carter was given a chance to reply almost immediately but hit the post from long range. Retallick's knock-on from the rebound gave the visitors a golden opportunity to attack at the first set-piece and when the Chiefs scrum was penalised under their sticks, Carter levelled the scores. The Chiefs never held the lead again.
Read rammed the advantage home on the ten-minute mark when he crashed over following a break by Robbie Fruean, and Carter's conversion put the Crusaders up 10-3.
Cruden pulled three points back for the tournament leaders but Carter showed the youngster why he is New Zealand's incumbent pivot by knocking over a drop-goal just a minute later to lengthen the Crusaders' lead and keep the pressure on.
It didn't take long for the men in red to strike again and Romano bagged their second try when the Chiefs failed to handle a cheeky grubber from Ellis. Carter's extras gave the Crusaders a healthy gap at 20-6 at the end of the first quarter.
The next 20 minutes saw the Chiefs come storming back though and when Kerr-Barlow gave Retallick a perfectly-timed pass, no one was going to stop the big second-row from close range.
Cruden provided the conversion and another penalty to cap a long period of sustained pressure from the hosts to cut the gap to just four points at 20-16.
Carter missed a long-range effort on the stroke of half-time but the Crusaders were first to score in the second stanza. The home side had reason to feel aggrieved though after TMO Bryce Lawrence awarded the try despite a clear second movement to push Ellis across the line.
The Chiefs' reply came via a moment of magic from SBW, who had been rather quiet all night but shrugged off four defenders to score after a ruck steal from Kerr-Barlow.
Like Carter a few minutes earlier, Cruden missed the conversion to leave the Crusaders 25-21 ahead going into the last quarter.
Crucially, Carter found his range to land a penalty and extend the lead to seven, meaning the Chiefs had to cross the whitewash.
Asaeli Tikoirotuma was denied by inches in the corner but the hosts were camped on the Crusaders' try-line in the closing stages. Wave after wave of drives and successive penalties came to nothing and Williams will feel guilty for going it alone with the final play of game when he had a two-man overlap on his outside.
It's a decision that could have a massive impact on the outcome of the tournament.
Tries: Retallick, Williams
Pens: Cruden 3
Tries: Read, Romano, Ellis
Cons: Carter 2
Pens: Carter 2
Chiefs: 15 Robbie Robinson, 14 Tim Nanai-Williams, 13 Andrew Horrell, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 Asaeli Tikoirotuma, 10 Aaron Cruden, 9 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 8 Alex Bradley, 7 Sam Cane, 6 Liam Messam, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Craig Clarke (c), 3 Ben Tameifuna, 2 Mahonri Schwalger, 1 Sona Taumalolo.
Replacements: 16 Hika Elliot, 17 Toby Smith, 18 Romana Graham, 19 Tanerau Latimer, 20 Brendon Leonard, 21 Jackson Willison, 22 Lelia Masaga.
Crusaders: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Adam Whitelock, 13 Robbie Fruean, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 Zac Guildford, 10 Dan Carter, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Richie McCaw, 6 George Whitelock, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Luke Romano, 3 Ben Franks, 2 Corey Flynn, 1 Owen Franks.
Replacements: 16 Quentin MacDonald, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Tom Donnelly, 19 Matt Todd, 20 Willi Heinz, 21 Tom Taylor, 22 Sean Maitland.
Referee: Steve Walsh (Australia)
By Ross Hastie