Chiefs beat Crusaders 26-25 in Super Rugby Aotearoa

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HAMILTON, New Zealand (AP) — Fullback Damian McKenzie kicked a penalty with two minutes remaining to give the Hamilton-based Chiefs a 26-25 win over the Christchurch-based Crusaders in Super Rugby Aotearoa on Saturday.

The Crusaders still hold a seven-point lead over the Chiefs in the championship table. But the four-time defending champion Crusaders have had two losses and a narrow overtime win in their last three games and the Chiefs, with four-straight wins, are heading into the playoffs with more momentum.

In a seesaw match, the Crusaders led 25-23 after a penalty to flyhalf Richie Mo’unga in the 66th minute.

The Chiefs, who lost all of their matches last season under British and Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland, have found new confidence this year under caretaker Clayton McMillan. They showed that confidence by calmly rallying to regain the lead with McKenzie’s late penalty, which capped his personal 16-point haul.

The Chiefs then won a vital turnover and a lineout in the last seconds of the match to shut out the Crusaders.

The Crusaders scored the first try of the match through center Leicester Fainga’anuku and held a 7-0 lead before McKenzie kicked three penalties to give the Chiefs a 9-7 advantage after 26 minutes.

Mo’unga kicked a penalty, then along with captain Scott Barrett created a try for fullback Will Jordan that gave the Crusaders a 17-9 halftime lead.

In a thrilling second half, center Alex Nankivell scored in the 47th minute to cut the lead to one point. The Crusaders re-established a six-point lead with a try to hooker Codie Taylor after a rolling maul in the 53rd minute.

The Chiefs enjoyed a period of dominance out of which winger Jonah Lowe scored a try to put them ahead 23-22 until Mo’unga’s penalty gave the Crusaders a short-lived lead.

While the Crusaders still lead the championship, their recent form makes them seem anything but invincible. Their regular offside play has been more heavily penalized this year than in the past and Mo’unga’s form as a playmaker has been mixed.

The Dunedin-based Highlanders were clinging to the hope of a playoffs place until Friday when they beat the Auckland-based Blues 35-29. They now have a much stronger role in the playoffs race.

The exceptional Highlanders’ head coach Tony Brown has the leanest roster in Super Rugby Aotearoa but already has engineered wins over the Crusaders and the Blues, who started the season among the title favorites.

Under Brown, the Highlanders appear likely to become a major force in the future as they develop their young lineup.

The Blues, in contrast, are headed for another season of underachievement after losing three of their last four games. Their inability to secure a world-class coach who can draw the best from a star-studded roster has led to years of poor performances and another false dawn this season which began with promise.

They've also seen regular slumps in the form of leading players such as the All Black brothers Rieko and Akira Ioane.


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