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Crusaders loss a 'backwards step' for Chiefs

By Tom Vinicombe
Sam Cane. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

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Warren Gatland and Sam Cane were in agreement following the Chiefs’ match with the Crusaders that the 34-19 defeat was a ‘backwards step’ for a team that many had considered Super Rugby Pacific front-runners after their late-game heroics in Christchurch just two weekends ago.

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Although any loss is disappointing, Cane and Gatland noted that it was the nature of the defeat that will sting the most, with previous strengths of the Chiefs falling to the wayside in Hamilton.

One two-point loss to the Blues aside, the Chiefs had started their season looking in fine form, suffocating the Highlanders in Queenstown, pipping the Crusaders at the final moment in Christchurch and putting nine tries on Moana Pasifika in South Auckland last weekend. What had worked so well for them in those victories, however, was frustratingly absent in their rematch with the Crusaders.

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“It felt like we’d been building really nicely, slowly making improvements, but then today we just got beaten to the punch in lots of different little areas,” co-captain Cane said following the game.

“I thought they dominated the aerial space and the kick battle. They won the majority of the collisions and the breakdown as well.

 

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“I know that we fought back and gave ourselves a chance but if we’re gonna be serious contenders this season, we can’t get beaten in those sort of areas.”

Outside backs Kaleb Trask, Shaun Stevenson and Etene Nanai-Seturo all came off second-best under the high ball compared to their opposition while first five Bryn Gatland and midfielder Quinn Tupaea both also shelled catches.

Meanwhile on the ground, Crusaders flanker Tom Christie and fullback Will Jordan both forced three breakdown turnovers each, snuffing out many a Chiefs attack and preventing the home side from building much in the way of momentum. While the Chiefs looked dangerous when they managed to string a few phases together, they finished the game with just 46 per cent possession and a lowly 91 per cent success rate at their own breakdowns.

In their prior victory over the Crusaders, it was the Chiefs who had come out on top in those particular areas of the game – but it wasn’t to be in Hamilton.

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“It’s disappointing to lose but then it’s disappointing there were facets of our game we didn’t get right,” said Cane. “Our carry-and-clean game had become a real strength of ours recently and that was an area that let us down tonight. The fact that we didn’t get parts of our game that we can control right is equally disappointing.”

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Gatland – stepping in as the match-day coach with Clayton McMillan invalided due to Covid – had a nearly identical take on where things fell apart for the Chiefs.

“[The Crusaders] dominated the breakdown area and the aerial battle and those were the two areas where we couldn’t get a foothold into the game and that was probably the difference between the two sides,” he said.

“I thought we looked really strong when we kept the ball … and we were able to score points but we weren’t able to do that for long enough and they did put a lot of pressure on us at the breakdown and made it tough for us. We kind of got our pants pulled down in that area and we’ll have to go away [and look at it].

“We feel like as a side we’ve been tracking really well, improving week to week and today was probably a little bit of a backwards step. We’ll need to take stock of that and probably focus on those two areas particularly, the breakdown and the aerial battle.”

Despite the loss, there’s still plenty of water to flow under the bridge in the 2022 season and with an eight-team finals series scheduled to kick off in May, the Chiefs will be confident they can get another shot at the Crusaders later in the year if they can right the wrongs from Saturday night’s fixture.

“We’ll take plenty from it and hopefully get those things right,” Cane said. “Maybe we see them down the track again at some point.”

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