The Canterbury Crusaders continued to set the pace in the Super 15 competition when they put away the Waikato Chiefs 34-16 in a high-paced game on Friday.
The bonus-point win was a welcome return for All Blacks captain Richie McCaw, making his first start of the season after being sidelined with a broken foot.
But the torrid encounter was a much closer affair than the score indicated, with the lowly Chiefs playing a helter-skelter game to throw the Crusaders off their rhythm.
The Crusaders’ four tries, two in each half, all came from turnover ball, with flyhalf Matt Berquist converting all four and adding two penalties.
The Chiefs, who were trailing a close 13-17 at half-time, scored one try to Lelia Masaga, while Mike Delany kicked a conversion and three penalties.
Fringe All Black midfielder Richard Kahui, vying with his opposite Robbie Fruean for World Cup selection, pulled off a series of bone-shattering tackles and the Chiefs’ forwards were quick to pounce.
With the competition leaders unable to settle, the Chiefs spent long periods on the attack, but in the end were punished for their own handling errors.
The injection of McCaw and fellow All Blacks Andy Ellis and Wyatt Crockett into the game with 30 minutes remaining was also a turning point.
The Chiefs were still within touch at 13-17 but Ellis scored within two minutes of taking the field and the Crusaders looked a more settled unit from then.
“It was really scrappy and both teams nullified each other quite a lot. We’ve definitely got a lot to work on,” said captain Kieran Read, while Chiefs skipper Mils Muliaina claimed the result was not a fair reflection on the game.
“I think we were pretty competitive for the majority of the game but unfortunately we relaxed a little bit and turned over ball, and against a team like the Crusaders you can’t afford to let your guard down.”
The game had hardly started when the Chiefs were punished for losing the ball in a ruck. Crusaders outside centre Robbie Fruean made the initial break and then finished off the move 50m downfield.
Midway through the half, when the Chiefs backs dropped the ball, Crusaders wing Sean Maitland snapped up the gift possession and outran All Blacks wing Sitiveni Sivivatu for half the field to score.
Between the Crusaders’ two first-half tries, Chiefs lock Isaac Ross put wing Masaga over and with a conversion and penalty by Delany, the home side briefly led 10-7.
After turning with a four-point lead, the Crusaders were forced to defend for the first 10 minutes of the second half before showing the depth of their squad by bringing on their three All Blacks reserves.
It brought immediate reward, again from turnover ball, and they were able to run the Chiefs from one side of the field to the other until a gap opened up for Ellis to score.
Another Delany penalty reduced the gap to 16-24 but the Crusaders played a tighter game in the countdown to the final whistle and benefited from another Berquist penalty and a try to replacement lock Luke Romano. — AFP