Chiefs seal final berth in Hamilton thriller

Getty Images     28 Jul 2012     Getty Images

It came down to one dropped pass after the final whistle by replacement lock Tom Donnelly as the Crusaders were harried by marauding Chiefs defenders looking to deny first five-eighths Dan Carter the chance to secure a dropped goal to take the game to extra time.

It was classic finals rugby, desperate defence from both sides, rugged forward exchanges and few significant line breaks. The Crusaders were hindered in the final outcome by several calls of accidental offside as they looked for vital breaks.

The signs were good from the outset for the home team who looked a sharper, more unified, combination than in the previous game between the two sides three weeks ago.

Some of the forward drives were reminiscent of a bygone era as the proverbial blanket could have been thrown over the pack. The driving play was also effective, and it rattled the Crusaders as the home took a 17-11 lead to half-time.

However, Carter pulled the margin back to three, four minutes into the second half but the Crusaders then saw a rare error from their ace when a penalty kick rolled over the dead ball line, and in resulting play back at halfway the Crusaders conceded a scrum penalty through prop Wyatt Crockett which Cruden goaled to take the score to 20-14.

Cruden demonstrated assuredness on attack on one occasion opening a gap with a hip shimmy and carrying play to the line after Williams had earlier cleared the advantage line. His All Blacks superior Carter did not have the time or space to call the shots in his usual manner. He landed four penalty goals but missed a chance to tie the game up in the 75th minute with a miss from 45m.

It was a concentrated start by the home team, hunting as a pack, hitting hard in defence with prop Ben Tameifuna demonstrating the intent within the side with two powerful early tackles. He also got away with a bit of lineout stoush when referee Craig Joubert wrongly fingered his propping partner Sona Taumalolo.

The Crusaders appeared rattled by the intensity of the onslaught, it was certainly a step up from what they faced against the Bulls in the play-offs game.

Captain Richie McCaw was again outstanding in the No.8 role, charging around attempting to lift his side and there was no doubt the loss of Luke Romano in the 14th minute hit the side hard.

The battle in the loose was uncompromising and the ability of Chiefs flanker Liam Messam to charge back against the defensive tide took a toll of the Crusaders' defences.

While Cruden opened the scoring with a second minute penalty goal, that was negated 12 minutes later by Carter. However, Cruden missed two chances, one of them from 55m.

Williams was lethal on the line breaks during the first half and a handful in the second with powerful running. One early quick transfer outside to Cruden saw a linking pass to halfback Tawera Kerr-Barlow allow him up towards the line and then the Chiefs pack arrived en masse and it was Taumalolo who burrowed across for his ninth try of the season, and in his 50th Super Rugby game.

Carter pulled the Crusaders back to 6-10 with a 31st minute penalty goal after Tameifuna was ruled to have collapsed the scrum.

The Chiefs swarmed after the re-start kick and halfback Andrew Ellis copped the lot and it was a scrambled clearing kick by second five-eighths Ryan Crotty which was fielded by Chiefs' No.8 Kane Thompson. He fed fullback Robbie Robinson who opened up space, again, through the centre of the field, slipping tackle after tackle before the ruck was created.

As the ball came back Williams picked it from the base of the ruck, on the run, and slipped it to Messam who again broke another tackle and raced 20m for the side's second try. Cruden's second conversion took the side to a 17-6 lead.

The Crusaders were lucky after getting into the Chiefs' 22m area after the re-start and being hit by the home defence which resulted in loose ball being uncontrolled as it was flicked behind the Crusaders players. The Chiefs were through onto the ball carrying play up to the Crusaders' line, however wing Tim Nanai-Williams was ruled to have been in front of the kicker.

Play returned back to halfway where the infringement occurred and from the resulting lineout, the Crusaders showed their class in lifting the tempo and finding a gap which second five-eighths Ryan Crotty was able to race through to leave the score at 17-11 at half-time.

Scorers: Chiefs 20 (Sona Taumalolo, Liam Messam tries; Aaron Cruden 2 con, 2 pen) Crusaders 17 (Ryan Crotty try; Dan Carter 4 pen). HT: 17-11