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Crusaders' defeat at hands of Chiefs confirms what many already suspected

By Tom Vinicombe
Alex Nankivell. (Photo by Peter Meecham/Getty Images)

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An unstoppable force met an immovable object in Christchurch on Saturday evening, with the Chiefs holding possession for almost the entirety of the final 20 minutes of their grudge match with the Crusaders and the home side repelling wave after wave of attack.

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Despite launching countless multi-phase attacks on the Crusaders, the Chiefs weren’t able to penetrate the line until the final minutes of the game when they eventually scored tries out wide to Shaun Stevenson and Rameka Poihipi.

It made for a fascinating final quarter and it will have given coaches Clayton McMillan and Scott Robertson plenty of food for thought. If the Chiefs need 10 or more phases to score tries, it doesn’t necessarily bode well for how the team is functioning on attack and they won’t always be able to string quite so many plays together in games to come.

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From a Crusaders’ point of view, their effort on defence was inspirational and will give Robertson plenty of confidence as the season moves forward. At the end of the day, however, it’s McMillan who’ll remember the evening most fondly and rightly so; a scrappy win is better than a heartening loss.

The wider implications of the result are also worth considering.

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Coming into the season, the Crusaders were unsurprisingly instilled as competition favourites. Even now, following a loss at their Christchurch fortress, it’s difficult to imagine a situation where the Cantabrians don’t take out the title come June – but they’re certainly not unbeatable.

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We’re yet to see anything close to an 80-minute performance from Robertson’s men this season, with the Highlanders building a 13-0 lead in Queenstown and both the Hurricanes and Chiefs having the better run of the final quarters of their showdowns with the Super Rugby Aotearoa champions. Even against Moana Pasifika, whose struggles have been well documented, it wasn’t until the final play of the game that the Crusaders were able to earn a try-scoring bonus point.

Still, the Crusaders appears to be the best-drilled team in the competition at this point – even if they weren’t able to get the business done against an under-strength Chiefs side in Christchurch.

But where do the rest of the teams in the competition sit? While the Highlanders currently look a little underwhelming compared to their NZ rivals, there was very little in their losses to the Chiefs, Crusaders, Hurricanes and Blues. Meanwhile, the Blues, Chiefs and Hurricanes have suffered a loss apiece. The Chiefs and Crusaders might go into next weekend’s derbies with the Hurricanes and Blues as slim favourites, but it wouldn’t shock anyone to see the underdogs take home the spoils.

Sam Cane repeated in his post-game comments the same message the Chiefs have delivered after every fixture in recent times – any team can win on the day.

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“Far out, we were on the other end of it last week,” he said. “I feel like we say it every time the Kiwi teams play, it’s just down to the wire.”

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They were the team that bore the bad luck throughout 2020, coming within seven points of beating all five NZ franchises at various points throughout the Aotearoa season but instead finished the year with eight losses on the trot. The Hurricanes had a similarly frustrating time of things last season, dropping close games to the Crusaders and Chiefs (twice). Had those fixtures fallen in the Hurricanes’ favour, they would have been playing in the Aotearoa final. Instead, they finished bottom of the log.

Over in Australia, the two Super Rugby AU finalists from 2021, the Reds and Brumbies, remain unbeaten after four rounds of action. They’ll be hoping that after last year’s Trans-Tasman shambles, they’re better prepared for the New Zealand sides but it’s difficult to see the remaining four teams really challenging for Pacific glory – although it’s likely at least one will feature in the knockout stages of the competition. None of the Waratahs, Western Force or Fijian Drua have been regularly blown off the park this year, however, meaning the Reds, Brumbies and even the Kiwi sides can’t afford to be off their games for any major periods of time.

Even if the rugby isn’t always to the highest standard – as was especially the case last weekend – the closeness of matches means there are few games in this year’s Super Rugby Pacific competition that can be written off in their entirety.

As has been the case over the past two seasons, there’s very little separating the wheat from the chaff when the New Zealand and Australian sides are in the midst of derby games week-in and week-out. The Chiefs’ win over the Crusaders in Christchurch has just reconfirmed that no side in this competition is beatable and the repeat intra-national fixtures will provide plenty of food for thought before the trans-Tasman matches eventually arrive in late April.

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