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Damian McKenzie injured as Chiefs start season with thrilling win over Crusaders

By Finn Morton
Xavier Roe (l) and Quinn Tupaea (r) of the Chiefs celebrate with Etene Nanai-Seturo (c) of the Chiefs after he scored try during the round one Super Rugby Pacific match between Chiefs and Crusaders at FMG Stadium Waikato, on February 23, 2024, in Hamilton, New Zealand. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

The Chiefs have drawn first blood in the new Super Rugby Pacific season by defeating defending champions the Crusaders 33-29 in a thrilling rematch of last year’s final at FMG Stadium Waikato.

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After taking the lead for the first time in just the fifth minute, the Chiefs raced out to a commanding half-time lead as they ran riot during a first-half blitz.

But an injury to Chiefs and All Blacks playmaker Damian McKenzie in the 43rd minute swung momentum in the Crusaders’ favour as they clawed their back into the lead.

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The Chiefs were down, but not out. Two penalties to replacement Josh Ioane at the death saw the hosts sneak by with a hard-fought win to open their campaign.

“It feels good. It’s good to start the season with a dub (win),” wing Etene Nanai-Seturo told Jeff Wilson on NZ’s Sky Sport.

“It’s always hard to win against the Saders boys, the boys from down south.

“Good to kick the season off with a dub.”

To the delight of fans across the Pacific, Crusaders debutant Rivez Reihana got the new Super Rugby season underway at 7.06pm by kicking the ball high into the Hamilton sky.

All Blacks and Chiefs lock Tupou Vaa’i charged onto the ball, and ended up beating some Crusaders defenders, which set the tone for the next few minutes. It was all the Chiefs.

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The Chiefs threw absolutely everything at their opponents to start the clash, including a stunning break from prop Ruben O’Neill which has to be seen to be believed.

Match Summary

4
Penalty Goals
1
3
Tries
4
3
Conversions
3
0
Drop Goals
0
142
Carries
103
6
Line Breaks
3
12
Turnovers Lost
12
4
Turnovers Won
6

O’Neill, who started at tighthead prop, ran freely through open pastures at FMG Stadium Waikato, and even offered a dummy pass to fool the covering defenders.

While O’Neill was brought down well short of the try line, the burst put the hosts in great field position as they prepared to continue their attacking onslaught. But the Crusaders aren’t champions for no reason – they stood tall, strong and valiant in defence.

In the end, all the Chiefs could muster was a relatively routine penalty attempt from Damian McKenzie. They returned to their half with points but appeared hungry for more after being starved of what would’ve been the first try of the season.

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Crusaders prop Tamaiti Williams was injured moments later after matching O’Neill’s effort with as another front rower looked to steal the show early on. But it ended in pain and agony.

The visitors spread the ball wide but couldn’t make anything of it in the end. Chiefs halfback Xavier Roe kicked the ball into touch and Williams limped off the pitch shortly after.

But the Crusaders weren’t going to be kept quiet – even without their ferocious tighthead. Playmaker Reihana went one-for-one off the kicking tee to level the scores at 3-all.

The match was tense and close at this stage, and appeared to be everything neutrals would want from a season-opener between two genuine contenders. But that didn’t last long.

Five minutes after Raihana’s penalty, flanker Kaylum Boshier showed some rugby genius to score the opening try of the season. Halfback Xavier Roe added another to the Chiefs’ score a few minutes after that.

Almost suddenly, the Chiefs led 17-3 as the match neared the end of the figurative first quarter.

The Crusaders made it a contest again shortly after, though, as wing Sevu Reece forced his way over for a much-needed try. In the All Black’s first regular season match since Round Four last year, Reece pushed off referee Nic Berry and the Chiefs’ Anton Lienert-Brown to score.

Game on. The Crusaders still trailed by seven, but there was some wind in their sails once more. But there was a sense of déjà vu as the hosts showed their class to round out the half.

Wing Etene Nanai-Seturo danced through the Crusaders’ defensive line – beating at least three defenders – to cross in the 30th minute. Fullback Shaun Stevenson added the extras.

The Chiefs continued to control proceedings during the next 10 minutes and capped that off with another McKenzie penalty – although the flyhalf appeared to be in some discomfort.

McKenzie slotted the long-range attempt as the Chiefs ran into the half-time sheds with a 27-10 advantage. They appeared to be well and truly in control of this highly anticipated clash.

The Crusaders needed to be the first to score in the second term – this match just had that kind of feeling to it. And much to the delight of their fans, they were.

Bang, bang. Fullback Chay Fihaki rewarded the rewards of some clever skills from Dallas McLeod and Reihana in the 43rd minute, and captain Scott Barrett crossed for one of his own shortly after.

Just six minutes into the second half, the Crusaders had cut the deficit down from 17 to just five. To rub salt into the Chiefs’ wound, McKenzie had also limped off the field injured early in the half.

Everything seemed to be going the Crusaders’ way. The champions had all the momentum and were playing with the confidence to match.

Fihaki completed a double with just under 13 minutes to play to help give the Crusaders the lead for the first time on the night. That effort was somewhat undone by a Josh Ioane penalty deep into the contest to snatch the advantage back into the Chiefs’ favour.

It was anyone’s game, and everyone knew it. One mistake could spell disaster for either side. But the clock continued to tick by which only added to the drama and intensity.

Then, knock-on. Dallas McLeod dropped the ball cold off a scrum.

Chiefs ball with three to go. But the ball didn’t leave the scrum – referee Nic Berry blew his whistle. Penalty to the Chiefs.

The attempt from replacement Josh Ioane bounced off the upright but went over. The Chiefs led by four with one minute to play.

That was all the Chiefs needed. After the team secured the restart, Xavier Roe kicked the ball into the stands with a triumphant look on his face.

The Chiefs emerged victorious in a thriller.

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