Reigning Super 15 champions the Waikato Chiefs made a stirring start to their title defense with an 18-10 win over New Zealand rivals the Canterbury Crusaders yesterday.
The Chiefs, back-to-back winners in 2012 and last year, produced a mighty defensive effort to hold out the late-surging Crusaders, with center Robbie Fruean returning to torment his old club in Christchurch.
Fruean, who left the Crusaders last season to undergo a heart operation, scored the opening try in the ninth minute and the Chiefs never relinquished the lead despite sustained pressure from the home team.
The Crusaders, seven-time champions, but without a title since 2008, dominated for much of the match, but struggled to find the line and finally succumbed to a late intercept try from debutant winger James Lowe.
In a sign of what was to come, Richie McCaw’s Crusaders had the best of the opening exchanges, only to be repelled by a wall of Chiefs defenders.
Fruean then shrugged off three Crusaders as he sprinted down the sideline for a five-pointer, with the Chiefs’ other high-profile recruit, Mils Muliaina, also involved.
Chiefs captain Aaron Cruden added a penalty to make it 8-0, taking his Super Rugby tally to 500 points.
The Crusaders had their chances, but flyhalf Tyler Bleyendaal squandered five penalty kicks and they went into the break scoreless.
Cruden had a try disallowed early in the second half after replays showed he lost control of the ball, but made no mistake when he potted a simple penalty minutes later to take the score to 11-0.
Sam Whitelock narrowed the gap when he leapt to claim the ball in a line-out then took off for the try-line, leaving the Chiefs’ defense standing, with Tom Taylor adding the conversion.
The Chiefs suffered a major blow when forwards Brodie Retallick and Ben Afeaki went off concussed after clashing heads, but they still managed to keep the Crusaders at bay.
A Taylor penalty made it 11-10 with six minutes to go and the Crusaders threatened to steal a result as they mounted wave after wave of attacks.
However, Lowe pounced on a loose pass and ran almost the length of the field to secure the win.