THE WAIKATO CHIEFS booked a place in the Super Rugby final for only the second time this morning when they hung on for a narrow 20-17 win over the Canterbury Crusaders in Hamilton.
In a cliffhanger semi-final the Chiefs held off a late charge by the seasoned Crusaders, who had a chance to equalise in the 75th minute but saw Dan Carter’s 45-metre penalty drop under the bar.
The Chiefs celebrated the final whistle as if they had already won the championship, but had to wait for tomorrow’s second semi-final between South Africa’s Western Stormers and Coastal Sharks to find out their last opponents.
If the Stormers go through the tournament climax will be in Cape Town, while a showdown with the Sharks would be played in Hamilton, as home advantage in the Super 15 playoffs is based on how the teams finished in the regular season.
Refreshed from a bye last week while the Crusaders faced the Bulls, the Chiefs opened at an extreme pace that threw the seasoned red-and-blacks off their game plan.
Making light of their inexperience at knockout rugby, the Chiefs forced their opponents off their stride behind the advantage line, and into uncharacteristic handling errors, turnovers and missed tackles.
“It’s pretty unreal at the moment, I just have to look at the scoreboard and let it sink in a little bit,” an elated captain Craig Clarke said as he left the field.
“It wasn’t perfect. A couple of scrums went backwards and a couple of lineouts were overthrown so it certainly wasn’t perfect, but it was good enough.”
Even so Crusaders captain Richie McCaw was in no doubt the better team won.
“We made crucial mistakes and never got our game going which probably comes down to a good Chiefs team but we probably lacked a bit of composure as well. You can’t win games when you haven’t got that.
“The Chiefs have set the standard all year, there’s no doubt about that. From our point of view it was disappointing but they probably deserved the win.”
Fly-half Aaron Cruden had the Chiefs in front with a penalty at the end of the opening passage of play, and while a Carter penalty levelled the score, the Crusaders were never ahead.
With loose forward Liam Messam at the head of a hungry pack, the Chiefs’ bullying tactics forced the visitors into bumbling passage of play that resulted in two quick tries.
The first went to Taumalolo when he burrowed over the line in a mass of bodies.
YouTube credit: Dan12396
There appeared to be an illegal double movement but the television match official was only asked to rule on whether a try was scored, and not on any illegalities leading up to the grounding of the ball.
A counter-attack from fullback Robbie Robinson then put the Chiefs deep into Crusaders territory, where Sonny Bill Williams found a gap to send Messam across the line.
The Crusaders stayed in touch with a second Carter penalty and a Ryan Crotty try on the stroke of halftime.
The opening minutes of the second half were dominated by penalties, two to Carter and one to Cruden to narrow the Chiefs lead to 20-17, but despite the Crusaders attacking relentlessly they were unable to score again.
While the Crusaders’ dream of an eighth Super Rugby title was wiped out, the Chiefs found themselves in the final for only the second time, having been thrashed 61-17 by the Bulls in South Africa in 2009 in their first appearance.