A huge defensive effort helped the Waikato Chiefs overcome the Canterbury Crusaders 28-19 in a ferocious all-New Zealand Super XV clash in Hamilton yesterday that had all the hallmarks of an international Test.
Flyhalf Aaron Cruden and captain Craig Clarke both scored first-half tries after charging down Crusaders kicks as the defending champions survived sustained periods of second-period pressure from the seven-time winners to earn a crucial triumph.
The victory extended the Chiefs’ lead at the top of the New Zealand conference to 10 points before they enjoy an extended hiatus until June 28 because of a bye week and the international break.
Tom Taylor slotted an early penalty for the Crusaders, before Cruden charged down his rival for the All Black flyhalf shirt, Dan Carter, to run through and touch down for the opening try under the posts in the 12th minute.
Cruden converted, but the Crusaders were back ahead when open-side flanker Matt Todd drove over from close range in the 18th minute after some effective work by the visiting forwards.
Cruden slotted another a penalty to level the game at 10-10, before second row Clarke used all of his gangly frame to charge down a clearance from winger Tom Marshall, scoring the Chiefs’ second and earning them a 15-10 lead.
A Taylor penalty shortly before halftime sent the teams into the interval with the Chiefs clinging on to a 15-13 lead.
More forward pressure after the break set up two Crusader penalties which Taylor kicked with Cruden adding one of his own to cut the deficit to 19-18.
The Chiefs were then left bravely hanging on as the Crusaders parked themselves in the hosts’ 22 for an extended spell, with heroic defending by Bundee Aki holding All Black No. 8 Kieran Read up over the line.
Aki then showed his attacking prowess as the Chiefs took the game to the Crusaders and the powerful center finally found a hole in the visitors’ backline to cross for a 70th-minute try.
Cruden converted to extend the lead to 25-19 and the flyhalf kicked a late penalty on the hooter to deny the Crusaders a losing bonus point.
REBELS 24, WARATAHS 22
Winger Tom English scored his first two tries in the Super XV as the Melbourne Rebels claimed a maiden win over the New South Wales Waratahs yesterday.
English touched down in the corner for tries in the ninth and 75th minutes as the Rebels, led by another immense display by their skipper and No. 8 Scott Higginbotham, edged a scrappy contest in front of their fans at AAMI Park.
While Australia coach Robbie Deans will be delighted by another powerful Higginbotham performance, he will have concerns over Waratahs center Berrick Barnes, who hobbled off in the 52nd minute after slotting his fourth penalty of the game.
A depleted Rebels side meant fullback Jason Woodward took on the kicking duties, and he and Barnes traded early penalties, before English broke his Super Rugby duck by stretching for the corner for the game’s opening try.
Woodward converted from the touchline and added a penalty, but Barnes kept the Waratahs in touch with two penalties, before Israel Folau struck four minutes before halftime.
Barnes slotted the conversion to make it four kicks from four, sending the Waratahs into the halftime break 16-13 ahead.
The versatile back notched another after the break before departing and Woodward slotted two more to tie the scores.
Replacement halfback Brendan McKibbin took on the Waratahs kicking duties and his first penalty put the visitors ahead 22-19 with 12 minutes left.
However, a break out by Woodward set up English to finish in the corner a couple of phases later.