Defence trumped possession in the wet of Christchurch when the Crusaders were required to break competition tackling records to hold out the Chiefs for a semifinal 20–7 win in Super Rugby Pacific rugby in Christchurch on Friday.
Extending their unbeaten record in playoff games to 27, and making their 16th final against either the Blues or Brumbies, the Crusaders called on all the legacy and tradition of their proud franchise to claim one of their gutsiest wins.
The defence was magnificent, gutsy and all but impenetrable. They broke their record of most tackles in a game in 2022 when finishing with 254 tackles.
Flanker Tom Christie, a tackle machine at the best of times, put in 29 tackles, two-try scorer Cullen Grace and skipper and lock Scott Barrett made 24 while lock Zach Gallagher and prop Oli Jager put in 20 each before they were substituted.
The third quarter summed up the challenge the Chiefs faced. The Crusaders were pinned in their 22m area. They hardly had their hands on the ball and it was all about tackling.
Even when Chiefs second five-eighths Quinn Tupaea was in space, his pass outside went to no one with the line wide open.
It was that sort of night for the Chiefs.
The action was intense from the outset, Crusaders first five-eighths Richie Mo'unga landing two penalty goals, the second after Tupaea was unlucky to be sin-binned for contact to the head of home flanker Pablo Matera. There was little he could do to avoid the contact as Matera was falling.
But then the Crusaders copped a midfield penalty that allowed the Chiefs to get into the 22m area where five penalties were conceded in the 10 minutes Tupaea was off the field.
Ironically, the Crusaders lost Matera under a general warning. Opting for another scrum, the Chiefs coughed up the ball when centre Alex Nankivell was unable to pull in a rocket-like pass. Mo'unga was onto the loose ball in a flash. Receiving the ball on the wing, Sevu Reece kicked ahead and with a tail wind, halfback Brad Weber was pinned on the line.
The Crusaders made the most of the five-metre scrum with Grace off the back at speed and able to stretch out in the tackle to score.
However, the Chiefs were quick in response, putting 15 phases together before prop Angus Ta'avao stumble through broken defence to score.
Pressure from the Crusaders was undone as the Chiefs looked to break out of their 22 as first five-eighths Bryn Gatland carried only to suffer a tackle, not unlike that which saw Tupaea sin-binned.
So, with the precedent set, the offender Matera suffered his second yellow card, which required him to be red-carded from the game after 31 minutes.
They suffered a temporary double blow as second five-eighths David Havili left the field temporarily with a cheekbone injury suffered attempting to tackle Chiefs No8 Pita Gus Sowakula.
Matera's loss appeared to have a galvanising effect ,and when Mo'unga stepped through a gap at speed, the ball was set up and Mo'unga was back in position to fling a ball wide where Grace was hovering to score his second try.
The Chiefs were unfortunate when, from a good attacking position, replacement first five-eighths Josh Ioane's attempted long pass to his right flank was intercepted allowing the Crusaders to go to the break with a 20-7 lead.
Crusaders 20 (Tries: Cullen Grace 2. Con: Richie Mo’unga 2. Pen: Richie Mo’unga 2) Chiefs 7 (Tries: Angus Ta’avao. Con: Bryn Gatland)
CRUSADERS: 15 Will Jordan, 14 Sevu Reece, 13 Josh Goodhue 12 David Havili (VC), 11 Leicester Fainga’anuku, 10 Richie Mo’unga, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Cullen Grace, 7 Tom Christie, 6 Pablo Matera, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Scott Barrett (C), 3 Oli Jager, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 George Bower.
Replacements: 16 Brodie McAllister, 17 Tamaiti Williams, 18 Fletcher Newell, 19 Zach Gallagher, 20 Corey Kellow, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 Braydon Ennor, 23 George Bridge
CHIEFS: 15 Josh Ioane 14: Jonah Lowe 13: Alex Nankivell 12: Quinn Tupaea 11: Etene Nanai-Seturo 10: Bryn Gatland 9: Brad Weber (C) 8: Pita Gus Sowakula 7: Luke Jacobson 6: Samipeni Finau 5: Tupou Vaa’i 4: Brodie Retallick 3: Angus Ta’avao 2: Samisoni Taukei’aho 1: Aidan Ross
Replacements: 16 Bradley Slater, 17 Ollie Norris, 18 George Dyer, 19 Naitoa Ah Kuoi, 20 Sam Cane, 21 Xavier Roe, 22 Rameka Poihipi 23 Chase Tiatia
Referee: Nic Berry
Assistant referees: Brendon Pickerill, Jordan Way