A dramatic 17-point burst in the second-half carried the defending champions Waikato Chiefs into the Super 15 finals with a 20-19 victory over the Canterbury Crusaders yesterday.
The golden 10-minute spell lifted them from 3-9 down to a 20-9 lead before they grimly held out a late Crusaders charge in a match played at a frantic pace.
The win ensures the Chiefs will defend their title at home next week against either the Northern Bulls or the ACT Brumbies.
The Chiefs were the underdogs going into the match, given the Crusaders’ form in recent weeks, but they had the better of the opening exchanges, finding holes around the side of the Crusaders ruck and spending long periods on the attack. However, they lacked accuracy and they were undone by a misfiring lineout and multiple turnovers.
The Chiefs had an opportunity to score early from a penalty, but preferred to take play up to the Crusaders line in a move that ultimately saw them lose possession.
The Crusaders were after points and the first two penalties they received within Dan Carter’s kicking range were both converted.
The Chiefs learned their lesson and when the Crusaders forwards were caught offside, Aaron Cruden put them on the board to trail 3-6 after the first quarter.
Carter landed a third penalty, but missed a fourth as the Crusaders, with their high-paced game, began to spend more time inside the Chiefs’ 22. With Kieran Read and George Whitelock heading a marauding pack they forced the Chiefs on to the back foot and by halftime led 9-3. The Crusaders continued to run riot in the opening plays of the second half to keep the Chiefs scrambling, but when Carter missed a second penalty, the Chiefs discovered their second wind.
In the space of 10 minutes, Cruden kicked a penalty, converted a try when one-Test All Black Lelia Masaga ran through the Crusaders pack, and then converted his own 40m runaway try from an intercept.
From six points down, the Chiefs were suddenly 11-points up, only to find their recovery stymied by a classy try from a delicate run down the sideline by Israel Dagg.
Carter landed a fourth penalty to have the Crusaders behind by just one point with seven minutes to play, but they were unable to score again, despite dominating territory in the closing minutes.