The Crusaders took another step towards the perfect season when they edged the Chiefs 31-24 in Suva, Fiji on Friday.
Super Rugby’s only unbeaten contenders, the 12-0 Crusaders clinched their first win against the Chiefs in five attempts, extending their lead at the top of the New Zealand conference to 12 points.
It remains to be seen whether they will break their record of 13 consecutive wins, set in 2002 when they made a clean sweep of the Super Rugby season.
It was a battle of the flyhalves in this one with Richie Mo’unga coming out on top, though Aaron Cruden produced an excellent performance – All Blacks coach Steve Hansen has a wealth of options at pivot to choose from ahead of the British and Irish Lions series.
Mo’unga has been much-maligned for what is a perceived lack of accuracy from the tee. But his kicking display on this occasion was near-perfect and was a great way to respond to his critics. He also created two tries with beautiful running lines.
Cruden also kicked extremely well and ran a lovely angle to set up Tim Nanai-Williams’ try before running another to score a try himself.
The Crusaders opened the scoring via a Richie Mo’unga penalty after Aaron Cruden was pinged for offside. Mo’unga added another penalty to make it 6-0.
But the Chiefs then responded by taking the lead with a well-taken try. Anton Lienert-Brown did well to collect a poor low pass and in one movement pop the ball inside for an onrushing Aaron Cruden who ran a beautiful angle through the gap before passing onto the right wing for Tim Nanai-Williams to finish expertly.
Cruden’s conversion made it 7-6 to the Chiefs after 20 minutes.Wing James Lowe showed his class by scoring the next try. Aaron Cruden’s kick bamboozled George Bridge going over his head.
Bridge tried to collect, but fumbled the ball and Lowe pounced, kicking the ball through before showing greater patience than a chasing Manasa Mataele to read the bouncing ball before dotting down.
Cruden missed from out wide but the Chiefs still had a 10-6 lead.
The Crusaders then regained the lead with their first try of the evening. From a ruck the ball went out to Jack Goodhue who broke the line. He went to ground but got a last-gasp pass away to Pete Samu who ran over for the try.
But their lead was short-lived as the Chiefs bounced back once again.
The Chiefs launched an attack straight from the kick-off and immediately made their way into the Crusaders 22. They built a few phases before Kane Hames managed to ground the ball on the line.
Cruden added the extras to give the Chiefs a 17-13 lead on the half-hour mark.
A Cruden kick over the defence was collected by Richie Mo’unga who found space on the outside before the ball found its way to Seta Tamanivalu on the wing.
He gave a brilliant offload to Jack Goodhue on his inside who released David Havili to score as the ‘Saders regained their lead.
Richie Mo’unga was the instigator once again as the Crusaders scored their third try.
Mou’nga made a clean break, scything his way through the Chiefs defence before having the vision to find Mataele out on the left wing. They recycled the ball from the ruck and substitute Funnell burrowed over in the corner. Mo’unga’s conversion was a good one from out on the touchline.
Mo’unga added a penalty to extend the lead to 11 points in what has been an accurate kicking display from a player who has been much maligned for his kicking.
From a scrum 7 metres from the Crusaders line Aaron Cruden got the ball quickly before breaking the line to score from first phase.
Fullback Damian McKenzie added the extras to cut the deficit to four at 24-28.
Mo’unga then kicked another three points from the tee which ensured the Chiefs would have to score more than just a converted try.
Tries: Nanai-Williams, Lowe, Hames, Cruden
Cons: Cruden 2, McKenzie
Tries: Bedwell-Curtis, Havili, Funnell
Cons: Mo’unga 2
Pens: Mo’unga 4
Chiefs: 15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Tim Nanai-Williams, 13 Sam McNicol, 12 Anton Lienert-Brown, 11 James Lowe, 10 Aaron Cruden (cc), 9 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 8 Michael Leitch, 7 Sam Cane (cc), 6 Mitchell Brown, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Dominic Bird, 3 Nepo Laulala, 2 Nathan Harris, 1 Kane Hames
Replacements: 16 Hika Elliot, 17 Siegfried Fisi’ihoi, 18 Atu Moli, 19 Taleni Seu, 20 Liam Messam, 21 Jonathan Taumateine, 22 Stephen Donald, 23 Shaun Stevenson
Crusaders: 15 David Havili, 14 Seta Tamanivalu, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 George Bridge, 10 Richie Mo’unga, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Jordan Taufua, 7 Matt Todd, 6 Pete Samu, 5 Sam Whitelock (c), 4 Luke Romano, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Joe Moody
Replacements: 16 Ben Funnell, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Michael Alaalatoa, 19 Quinten Strange, 20 Heiden Bedwell-Curtis, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 Mitchell Hunt, 23 Manasa Mataele
Date: Friday, May 19
Venue: ANZ National Stadium, Suva
Kick-off: 19:35 local (07:35 GMT)
Referee: Mike Fraser
Assistant Referees: Brendon Pickerill, Paul Williams
TMO: Shane McDermott