Two tries to one in Hamilton
The Chiefs will host their second successive Super Rugby Final, after they edged the Crusaders 20-19 in a thrilling semifinal in Hamilton on Saturday.
It was an epic battle, with the scoreline a fitting reflection of just how close it was.
In the end the Chiefs probably deserved the win, given that they came back from trailing 3-9 at the half-time break and then scored two quick tries to get a lead they never relinquished.
There was plenty of movement in the game, but it was the physicality from both teams that was the stand-out feature.
The Chiefs' line-outs were not working very well, with Hika Elliot's rickety throwing in particular a major headache. That problem they resolved with going to the front after the break.
However, the home team made up for some of their sloppy set-piece play with some brutal and very efficient defence, as they got off the mark very quickly and shut down most of the Crusader's rushes before they became a real threat.
It was a pity that their handling was not always of the same high standard, while they were also caught offside too often.
To their credit, they stuck to their running game and got the reward at a crucial stage early in the second half.
As for the Crusaders, they relied on their traditional game of strong defence and securing plenty of turnovers - especially inside their 22 - while waiting for the opposition to make mistakes and then play from there, with their off-load game coming to the fore as the game wore on.
Their kicking game was also superior to that of the Chiefs, who often preferred to run the ball out of their territory.
In the first half the Crusaders' rewards were just penalties, but the try eventually came in the final quarter - but it was a case of too little too late.
The Chiefs put the heat on the Crusaders early on, but an error of judgement by Tawera Kerr-Barlow - when he took a quick tap from a penalty instead of a kick at goal - came back to haunt them.
Not only did they turn over the ball, but once the Crusaders soaked up the early pressure and settled down, the visitors worked their way upfield and won a penalty - which Dan Carter slotted withy the greatest of ease - 3-0 after six minutes.
The two teams continued o hammer at each other for a while, till the Chiefs went offside on their 10-metre line in the 19th minute and Carter made it 6-0.
However, the Chiefs were soon given a shot at goal, when the Crusaders advanced in front of the kicker, and Aaron Cruden reclaimed three points.
When the Chiefs loose forwards broke early at a scrum in the 27th minute, Carter made the Chiefs pay again for their lack of discipline - 9-3.
Three minutes from the half-time break Carter had a chance to stretch the lead even further, but he produced what was probably one of his worst kicks of the season - well wide of the uprights. Carter also attempted a drop-goal, but that dipped under the crossbar, leaving the Crusaders with that 9-3 lead at the break.
It was much the same in the early stages of the second half, with the Chiefs conceding a penalty in desperation to stop a try. However, Carter again failed to find the target - instead hit the upright.
Aaron Cruden had a shot at goal in the 47th minute, when Matt Todd went offside at a line-out, and he pulled three points back - 6-9.
That got the Chiefs on the front foot and after a couple of mauls that was efficiently dealt with by the Crusaders defenders, before Lelia Masaga took it upon himself - going on angled run, powering through a couple of Crusaders defenders to over for the first try. Cruden's conversion made it 13-9.
The Crusaders came charging back and went close - within a metre with a couple of their charges - but Andy Ellis' ball control let him down and the Chiefs were awarded a crucial scrum five metres out.
Minutes later Cruden intercepted a sloppy pass and sprinted 50 metres for another try. He added the conversion to make it 20-9, with just over 20 minutes to go.
However, Israel Dagg produced a moment of sublime brilliance as he rounded a couple of defenders to get the Crusaders back in the game with a brilliant try. He stepped the first defender, a tight forward, and then used his speed to round the cover. Carter's conversion made it a four-point game - 16-20 going into the final quarter.
And with just over 10 minutes to go, the Crusaders introduced Richie McCaw into the fray. Unfortunately he did not have the desired impact.
The Chiefs got the next scoring opportunity - Carter going off his feet at a tackle/ruck situation and Cruden stepping up. However, he pushed it wide to the right and the Chiefs clung to the tenuous four-point lead going into the final 10 minutes.
When the Chiefs went offside at a ruck, Carter stepped up and slotted it straight through the middle to make it a one-point game (19-20) with six minutes to go.
A Chiefs mistake from the restart, with the ball not travelling the required 10 metres, gave the Crusaders the territorial advantage they required.
There was a drop-goal attempt by Dan Carter, but that was wide. The Chiefs managed to get the ball back into Crusaders territory - leaving the visitors to carry it back almost 80 metres and the time ticking away.
It was a line-out steal that gave the Crusaders the chance they wanted, but the visitors coughed up the ball near the Chiefs 10-metre line and the men from Hamilton had booked themselves another home Final.
Man of the match: Dan Carter was again the general that dictated terms, although his goal-kicking was not up to his usual high standards, and Kieran Read left his mark on the game in no uncertain terms. Israel Dagg again showed that fullback is his best position, after playing on the wing in the early stages of the season. Tanerau Latimer made a real nuisance of himself at the breakdown and worked exceptionally hard on defence. However, our award goes to Chiefs flyhalf Aaron Cruden, who may have had a slow start, but after the break he stamped his authority on the game - not just with the boot, but also his tactical appreciation.
Moment of the match: There was the Lelia Masaga try in the 51st minute, as it gave the Chiefs the reward for their bravery to opt for a line-out in stead of kicking at goal and gave the Chiefs the lead for the first time. The Israel Dagg try, when he stepped a defender and rounder the cover for a crucial try just short of the final quarter, was also vital. However, the match-winning score was when Aaron Cruden intercepted in the 57th minute - that gave the home team the daylight they needed.
Villain of the match: There was none. It was hard, even brutal, and a string of penalties. But this game was not worthy of villains, just heroes.
For the Chiefs:
Tries: Masaga, Cruden
Cons: Cruden 2
Pens: Cruden 2
For the Crusaders:
Pens: Carter 4
Chiefs: 15 Gareth Anscombe, 14 Lelia Masaga, 13 Charlie Ngatai, 12 Andrew Horrell, 11 Asaeli Tikoirotuma, 10 Aaron Cruden, 9 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 8 Matt Vant Leven, 7 Tanerau Latimer, 6 Liam Messam, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Craig Clarke (captain), 3 Ben Tameifuna, 2 Hika Elliot, 1 Toby Smith.
Replacements: 16 Rhys Marshall, 17 Ben Afeaki, 18 Michael Fitzgerald, 19 Sam Cane, 20 Augustine Pulu, 21 Bundee Aki, 22 Robbie Robinson.
Crusaders: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Tom Marshall, 13 Ryan Crotty, 12 Tom Taylor, 11 Zac Guildford, 10 Dan Carter, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Kieran Read (captain), 7 Matt Todd, 6 George Whitelock, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Luke Romano, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Corey Flynn, 1 Wyatt Crockett.
Replacements: 16 Ben Funnell, 17 Joe Moody, 18 Luke Whitelock, 19 Richie McCaw, 20 Willi Heinz, 21 Tyler Bleyendaal, 22 Adam Whitelock.
Referee: Steve Walsh (Australia)
Assistant referees: Glen Jackson (New Zealand), Chris Pollock (New Zealand)
TMO: Glenn Newman (New Zealand)