The Crusaders gave their strongest performance yet this Super 14 with a convincing 23-16 win over the Chiefs in Hamilton on Friday.
A powerful first half laid the platform for the victory, including a brace of tries for called-up reserve scrum-half Kahn Fotuali'i and five goals from the boot of Dan Carter.
The Chiefs played their usual expansive game but came off second best far too often in the loose skirmishes, not helped by the early loss of Liam Messam to injury.
One breathless period around the half-hour mark made a significant difference and showed just how the Chiefs can thrill but can also be their own worst enemy. The teams had traded counter-attacks but Carter had booted the ball into the Chiefs' 22. Mils Muliaina tried once more to spark something, but left Lelia Masaga isolated as the rest of the team laboured to get in support through a haze of lactic acid.
The Crusaders' chasers turned the ball over, Fotuali'i sniped blind - something he did all night to great effect - and combined with Ryan Crotty through the ragged defence before racing home for his second try of the evening and leaving the Chiefs 20-9 to the bad.
From then on, the visitors dug in and won the wrestling bouts, further evidence that brilliant though this Chiefs team can be they could well yet come up short because of an inability to grind out the wins they can't run in. The same failing was on show last week against the Reds and their future opponents will surely now be taking note.
On the other hand, this was clear evidence that the Crusaders are champion material this year. Having gone 6-0 down before they had even had a spell of meaningful possession, they kept their heads and fought their way back in.
Carter got himself an early penalty and then Fotuali'i scored his first, leaving the Chiefs not a second to regroup after a George Whitelock break before sniping over the line. Carter converted to make it 10-6.
The two fly-halves swapped further penalties before Fotuali'i scampered in for that game-turning try, but the Chiefs responded almost immediately, Donals finally finding a chink of light in the Crusaders' fringe defence to set Richard Kahui away.
Carter's third penalty made it 23-16 at the break, but while the teams cooled off in the dressing rooms, the heavens opened.
It changed the complexion of the game. With the field heavier and the ball harder to move, the forwards came into the game and it tightened up considerably. Any threat the Chiefs posed was bogged down, while the visitors' pack was able to make continuous yardage.
It nearly yielded a try for Corey Flynn after a series of rucks near the Chiefs' line, but that was as close as we came to a try in the second half. Carter extended the lead to ten with a penalty, Donald kept the Chiefs in touch with a monster kick from near half-way. The game ebbed and flowed but the Crusaders were well in control by the end.
Man of the match: He was called up as an injury replacement, but the performance of Kahn Fotuali'i at scrum-half will surely have Todd Blackadder wondering if Andy Ellis will automatically slot back into the A team when he's healthy again.
For the Chiefs:
Pens: Donald 3
For the Crusaders:
Tries: Fotuali'i 2
Cons: Carter 2
Pens: Carter 3
Chiefs: 15 Mils Muliaina (c), 14 Lelia Masaga, 13 Richard Kahui, 12 Callum Bruce, 11 Sitiveni Sivivatu, 10 Stephen Donald, 9 Brendon Leonard, 8 Colin Bourke, 7 Tanerau Latimer, 6 Liam Messam, 5 Romana Graham, 4 Craig Clarke, 3 Nathan White, 2 Aled de Malmanche, 1 Sona Taumalolo.
Replacements: 16 Vern Kamo, 17 Ben Afeaki, 18 Culum Retallick, 19 Luke Braid, 20 Junior Poluleuligaga, 21 Mike Delany, 22 Dwayne Sweeney.
Crusaders: 15 Jared Payne, 14 Sean Maitland, 13 Robbie Fruean, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 Zac Guildford, 10 Dan Carter, 9 Kahn Fotuali'i, 8 Kieran Read, 7 George Whitelock, 6 Richie McCaw (c), 5 Isaac Ross, 4 Brad Thorn, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Ti'i Paulo, 1 Wyatt Crockett.
Replacements: 16 Corey Flynn, 17 Ben Franks, 18 Sam Whitelock, 19 Thomas Waldrom, 20 Willi Heinz, 21 Adam Whitelock, 22 Colin Slade.
Referee: Mark Lawrence (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Chris Pollock (New Zealand), Matthew Stanish (New Zealand)
TMO: Ben Skeen (New Zealand)