DEFENDING Super Rugby champions the Chiefs took a firm grip of the New Zealand conference and kicked clear at the top of the overall standings with a brutal 28-19 win over the Crusaders on Friday night.
In an arm wrestle between defensively strong sides, the Chiefs tackled themselves to a standstill before finishing the stronger of the two in Hamilton.
Trailing 19-15 with half an hour remaining, outstanding five-eighth Aaron Cruden landed two penalties and was the central figure in late attacking raids which sent inside centre Bundee Aki over for a decisive try.
Cruden finished with 18 points, including the first of their three tries while Crusaders counterpart Tom Taylor kicked 14 points, including the conversion of their only try to flanker Matt Todd.
The Chiefs’ 10th win from 13 games moves them six points clear of the second-placed Bulls and Brumbies, who are both still to play in round 15.
The Crusaders were fifth coming in but Cruden’s third penalty after the final hooter meant they failed to secure a bonus point and are in danger of slipping outside the top six.
A gripping contest between two teams who had won their previous four games was fought out mostly up front on a surface made slippery by heavy dew.
A long period defending their own line midway through the second half ultimately proved crucial for the Chiefs.
It included a remarkable tackle by Aki on Crusaders captain Kieran Read, who looked certain to score but was held up over the tryline.
The hosts swung downfield and were denied a try to centre Charlie Ngatai after the third match official ruled Aki had taken out a defender, before the young No.12 made amends with his try in the 70th minute.
A Chiefs side hit hard this season by injuries spent much of the first spell in defence yet led 15-13 at halftime courtesy of two tries from charge-downs.
Cruden got the better of rival All Blacks No.10 Dan Carter when he charged down an attempted clearance in the 12th minute.
Co-captain Craig Clarke repeated the dose in the 29th minute when he blocked a Tom Marshall clearance to score.
Todd burrowed over after Read turned down an easy penalty shot at goal but the Crusaders paid for a similar attack-minded decision in the second spell.
They turned down an easy three points while leading narrowly but failed to score.
The Chiefs won the semi-final between the teams at the same venue last year and are on track to top the Kiwi conference and host another semi.
They have just three games to play in the regular season, with the next one not until June 28 due to a bye next weekend and then mid-season Test matches.