Three points adrift of their rivals before kick-off and with a worse points differential, the outfit from Waikato knew they had to deprive their opponents of any points if they could not claim the try bonus. And the former is what they managed thanks to a late penalty goal.
James Lowe and Brad Weber scored the Chiefs’ tries while Damian McKenzie kicked 13 points. Jone Macilai crossed for the Crusaders.
The weather was atrocious in Suva for expansive rugby but such is the quality of the sides that the skill sets were outstanding, as the Fijian crowd enjoyed its first taste of Super Rugby. ANZ National Stadium was packed in what is hopefully their first of many matches.
It was all the Crusaders for the opening 15 minutes but credit to the Chiefs who held firm on their own line before eventually an offence was spotted by referee Andrew Lees. Richie Mo’unga sent over the simple penalty on 19 minutes and the Crusaders deservedly led.
Such is the class of this Chiefs outfit though that they only need a sniff and that was all it took when centre Seta Tamanivalu’s lovely grubber through saw Lowe ground in the rain. McKenzie judged the wind perfectly to knock over the extras as suddenly it was 7-3.
The lead became seven on the half-hour mark when Crusaders hooker Codie Taylor was penalised at the ruck and McKenzie did the rest.
High class rugby kept coming until the break and it was the Chiefs who would increase their lead when a moment of magic from McKenzie saw him break and offload to Weber, who showed pace to score. At 17-3 this result would be enough to take them above the Crusaders.
But credit to the pre-game Super Rugby leaders as they were not to be outdone late in the half, when a move started by Nemani Nadolo went out to the right where Jordan Taufua put the ball inside to Macilai for the finish. That made it a 17-10 deficit to cap an excellent half.
The Chiefs thought they had their third try of the game in the 46th minute when Anton Lienert-Brown crossed after a breakout that involved replacement Sam McNicol and McKenzie. However the latter’s foot was in touch so it was chalked off. In truth it deserved five points.
Both sides continued to try their hand and refused to go into their shell as the contest reached a key period coming up to the hour, with only three points from the boot of McKenzie troubling the scorers. That meant it was 20-10, this after Aaron Cruden had been introduced.
So with time ticking on the Chiefs knew their objective was to keep the Crusaders outside the seven-point zone. It looked they hadn’t managed it when Mo’unga made it 20-13 from 25 metres out with six minutes remaining but when McKenzie responded with the last kick of the game, the result and top spot was secured with just two rounds to play.
Tries: Lowe, Weber
Con: McKenzie 2
Pen: McKenzie 3
Pen: Mo’unga 2
Chiefs: 15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Toni Pulu, 13 Seta Tamanivalu, 12 Anton Lienert-Brown, 11 James Lowe, 10 Stephen Donald, 9 Brad Weber, 8 Tom Sanders, 7 Sam Cane (cc), 6 Taleni Seu, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Dominic Bird, 3 Hiroshi Yamashita, 2 Hika Elliot, 1 Kane Hames
Replacements: 16 Nathan Harris, 17 Siegfried Fisi’ihoi, 18 Atu Moli, 19 Mitchell Brown, 20 Lachlan Boshier, 21 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 22 Aaron Cruden, 23 Sam McNicol
Crusaders: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Jone Macilai, 13 Kieron Fonotia, 12 David Havili, 11 Nemani Nadolo, 10 Richie Mo’unga, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Kieran Read (c), 7 Matt Todd, 6 Jordan Taufua, 5 Samuel Whitelock, 4 Scott Barrett, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Wyatt Crockett
Replacements: 16 Ben Funnell, 17 Joe Moody, 18 Mike Alaalatoa, 19 Jimmy Tupou, 20 Jed Brown, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 Mitchell Hunt, 23 Sean Wainui
Referee: Andrew Lees (Australia)
Assistant Referees: Rohan Hoffmann (Australia), Will Houston (Australia)
TMO: George Ayoub (Australia)