Seven-time champions the Canterbury Crusaders kept their Super 15 finals aspirations alive with a 28-21 win over competition leaders the Waikato Chiefs in Hamilton, New Zealand, yesterday.
The Crusaders, needing a win to maintain their chance of appearing in the finals for the 12th consecutive year, dominated in the forwards to score three tries to two against the high-flying Chiefs.
Returning All Blacks stars Dan Carter, Israel Dagg and Kieran Read were pivotal for the Crusaders in a win which saw the Christchurch team bounce back from a shock 23-22 loss to the Wellington Hurricanes last week.
“We weren’t up to it last week and really needed to step up to it tonight,” Crusaders captain Richie McCaw said. “We talked about it and I thought we fronted up well, particularly on their set-piece.”
Defeat would have left the Crusaders, losing finalists to the Queensland Reds last year, reliant on other results to make the top six.
For the Chiefs, already in the finals after topping the New Zealand Conference, the loss is a blow to their chances of securing the No. 2 position, which would guarantee a home semi-final.
However, the Waikato team, who boast former All Blacks assistant coach Wayne Smith as part of their backroom staff, can finish no lower than third and remain well-placed in their quest for a maiden Super Rugby title.
The Chiefs came out firing, Aaron Cruden and Tawera Kerr-Barlow combining to put then within 5m of the tryline in the first minute, but having to settle for three points after a penalty to the Crusaders.
Carter evened the score with a penalty two minutes later before Kieran Read, profiting from early Crusaders dominance in the scrum, latched onto a short pass from Israel Dagg and went over for the first try, which was converted by Carter.
Both sides continued to throw the ball around in a ferociously contested match, with Carter, once known for his aversion to drop-goals, putting the Crusaders up 13-6 with a punt from open play after 17 minutes.
Luke Romano followed up with a try from a rolling maul as the South Island team’s forwards continued to push the Chiefs, which Carter again converted to make it 20-6.
With the Crusaders threatening to run away with the match, Brodie Retallick hit back for the Chiefs when Kerr-Barlow sold a dummy pass to the defense, leaving a clear path for the young lock.
Cruden converted and scored another penalty to narrow the gap to 20-16 in the Crusaders’ favor at halftime.
He sliced a penalty attempt just after the restart, but the Crusaders again grabbed the initiative after Andy Ellis scored a try, despite Chiefs’ protestations that Kerr-Barlow had held up the ball on the line.
Former rugby league star Sonny Bill Williams, who was missing in action for much of the first half, kept the Chiefs in it, bludgeoning his way through three defenders for the Chiefs’ second try, Cruden adding the extras.
In the final 20 minutes, Carter slotted a penalty and the Chiefs had a try to Asaeli Tikoirotuma disallowed, with the home side enjoying attacking chances, but let down by a misfiring lineout.
The Chiefs opted to run the ball after being awarded two penalties following the siren, with Sonny Bill Williams adjudged held up over the line after the second to give the Crusaders a win.
REDS 19, HIGHLANDERS 13
AFP, BRISBANE, Australia
Australia’s Queensland Reds lived on in the fight to defend their Super Rugby title with a gripping win that ended the Otago Highlanders’ season in Brisbane yesterday.
The Reds defended desperately on their own try-line in the final frenetic minutes as New Zealand’s Highlanders tried to find an opening.
However, as Otago skipper and prop Jamie Mackintosh wrestled his way close to the try-line, blindside flanker Jake Schatz won a crucial turnover to protect Queensland’s lead and keep them in the hunt for the top-six playoffs with their fifth straight win.
The Reds climbed into sixth place ahead of the weekend’s remaining games, with their Australian derby against the New South Wales Waratahs in Brisbane next week to decide their playoff fate.
Otago, who have a bye in next weekend’s final regular round, had to win to keep in the running for the finals, but the defeat means their season is now over.
The Highlanders, who were one-time leaders of this year’s series, outscored the Reds two tries to one, but it was the kicking of center Mike Harris that proved the difference, with a conversion and four penalties from his six attempts.
The Reds, with Wallaby playmaker Quade Cooper playing the entire 80 minutes, looked set for a comfortable victory with a 16-3 lead after prop James Slipper’s 57th-minute try.
Otago hit back with tries from All Black flanker Adam Thomson and Chris King, closing to within six points and setting up a tense finish.
“It was very tough and we made it very hard for ourselves at times, and credit to the Highlanders, they put a lot of pressure on us with their pick-and-go,” Reds skipper Will Genia said.
“It’s a massive game for us next week against the Waratahs, our season is on the line, so we have to prepare as good as we can and put in a good performance next Saturday,” he added.
It was a disappointing finish to the season for Otago and their veteran All Black scrumhalf Jimmy Cowan, who is leaving to play in England for Gloucester.
“It was a pretty frustrating way to end the game and we got pretty close, and to be involved in that turnover is not good,” Mackintosh said.
“We would have loved to send Jimmy off a winner. He’s played 50 games for the All Blacks and 100 for the Highlanders, and what a career he’s had,” he added.