Chiefs beat Crusaders to assume Super Rugby title favoritism
WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — The Hamilton-based Chiefs left no doubt they are title favorites in Super Rugby Pacific when they stretched their winning start to the season to nine matches with their second win over the defending champion Crusaders.
The Chiefs’ 34-24 win on Saturday had many of the characteristics of a champion team. They were on the back foot in the first half, mostly trapped inside their half, but still managed to lead 9-7 at halftime.
After extending their lead in the second half, they saw the Crusaders comeback to lead with 10 minutes remaining. It was then they emphasized their championship quality by rallying to win the match with two late tries.
Throughout the match they showed composure, resilience by making more than 180 tackles and an ability to rise to the moment. They won almost all of the key moments in the match and sealed their victory by winning a crucial penalty against the head at a Crusaders scrum and scoring in the ensuing movement.
Flyhalf Damian McKenzie had a major hand in the Chiefs’ victory. He kicked five penalties in all but his three goals in the first half earned the Chiefs a lead against the run of play.
He then had a hand in two Chiefs tries, creating the 72nd minute try to Shaun Stevenson which gave the Chiefs a lead they didn’t relinquish.
McKenzie outplayed his Crusaders and All Blacks opposite Richie Mo’unga who kicked poorly off the tee and in general play in a match in which recoverable kicks were a leading tactic. Chiefs coach Clayton McMillan praised McKenzie, with reservations.
“He kicked some influential goals and made some telling runs in both halves that got us access behind the Crusaders,” McMillan said. “He had a hand in both tries but there were times he probably tried a little bit much.
“The Crusaders came with a deliberate plan of trying to stress him with line speed and we made a few adjustments at halftime. We’re a better team for having him in our side, no doubt about it.”
The Chiefs’ performance reflected their confidence. They beat the Crusaders 31-10 in round one and went out and did so again, showing no signs of deference to the six-time defending champions.
“This team always thinks we can beat the Crusaders,” McMillan said. “We know we’ve got tools in our arsenal that when we get it right it’s challenging for them.
“We’ve got some big physical ball-runners that can dent holes and guys that bring x-factor and beat players on the outside. When those things come off, that builds our belief.
“You never write (the Crusaders) off. We all think that to win this competition you’ve got to always keep in the back of our mind we might have to play them three times. Tonight accumulates some points, but that’s it. The season is far from over. This group is very grounded.”
McMillan put the Chiefs win down to “grit and determination.” He said the win “gives us a little bit of breathing space.
“That counts for a lot. We’re going to have to give our All Blacks another break between now and quarterfinals. What games you choose to do that becomes a bit easier.”
The match raised new questions about Crusaders head coach Scott Robertson who will be the All Blacks head coach after this year’s World Cup. He was appointed on the basis of the Crusaders’ past success but there now are doubts around the Crusaders who languish fifth on the championship table.
The Chiefs “have beaten us home and away, and good on them... they’re good,” Robertson said. “You’ve got to give it to them, fair play they’ve built a great roster and anyone that steps in has stepped up.
“It’s probably a reflection of parts of the game, not the whole game. Get those right and the result can change pretty quickly. We played some great footy, a lot of positive stuff. It’s just the game management. We’ve got to be better.”
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