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Chiefs lead way for PI

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How the Chiefs' shock win over the Crusaders proves why a Pacific Island team could be so successful

There is a valid claim to bestow the Chiefs’ upset 40-27 comeback win over the back-to-back reigning champion Crusaders as the Super Rugby match of the year.

While the entire match felt like a giant broadcast advertisement for the country of Fiji, the on-field product that was trying to be sold was compelling, entertaining and high-octane.

The match evoked memories of a vintage Super 12 contest, where both teams were ambitious and unrelenting with ball in hand, yielding some top-class running rugby, while the boisterous crowd fully pledged their support to both teams in an atmosphere that could perhaps only be rivalled by Sunwolves fans at Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium in Tokyo.

More importantly, though, it keeps the Chiefs in the mix for an unlikely playoff spot after all hope of a top eight finish seemed out of sight following a five-match winless run to open their campaign.

What was left of that hope was further diminished inside the opening 20 minutes of this match, as the Crusaders stormed out to a 20-0 lead, but the determination and perseverance of the Chiefs to overturn that deficit was admirable.

Although both they and the Crusaders have played a game more than everyone else in the competition, the Chiefs have moved up to ninth spot and sit just two points shy of the eighth-placed Sharks.

A trip to Melbourne to face the Rebels in two weeks’ time is all that remains for them in this regular season, and given the Victorian side’s recent slump in form – they’ve lost seven of their last 11 games – a season-saving win at AAMI Park wouldn’t be entirely out of the question.

The prospect of a Super Rugby post-season featuring the Chiefs is still a long shot regardless of what happens against the Rebels on June 14, as a raft of results from other matches would have to fall into place to allow the Chiefs admission into the quarter-finals.

However, their shock victory over the table-leading Crusaders, who haven’t played convincingly over the last three weeks, has given them hope of extending their playoff run to an eighth straight season, and they have the attacking flair of all their players, from loosehead prop Atu Moli to reserve outside back Tumua Manu, to thank for it.

There were some scintillating tries from both sides from start to finish, beginning with Scott Barrett’s 40-metre burst up the middle of the park and ending with Manu’s breathtaking soar into the air to claim a 22-metre re-start against the run of play.

The pick of the lot has to be awarded to Chiefs lock Jesse Parete, who finished off a wonderful flowing move which spanned 80-metres and involved Anton Lienert-Brown, Pita Gus Sowakula, Brad Weber, Moli and Alex Nankivell in the build-up.

That piece of play alone encapsulated what Super Rugby likes to pride itself on as the game’s most exciting club competition in the world, and although that reputation has faded as the league has evolved, this clash was a stark reminder of how Super Rugby earned such a reputation in the first place.

Parete’s try, along with most other tries that either preceded or followed it, sent fans in Suva into raptures in a climate of fanfare that was sustained throughout the majority of the match.

It brings into question yet again why there is yet to be a Super Rugby franchise established in the Pacific Islands given not only the professional talent stemming from the region, but also the pure passion that is provided by the local fans.

The lack of financial stability is the obvious reason behind the continual omission of Super Rugby in Fiji, Samoa and Tonga, but something needs to change in the administrative ranks in order to make expansion further into the Pacific more feasible.

If Saturday’s fixture is anything to go by, the chequebook needs to be thrown at a Pacific Island franchise.

Whether it be via a joint effort between the Fijian, Samoan and Tongan rugby unions, the venture of a private owner, or even something as radical as relocating the Sunwolves to Suva, this match showed the potential for a fully-professional rugby club to be based in the Islands.

The entertainment factor of Pasifika talent playing high-quality rugby – like the Chiefs v Crusaders clash – should provide an enticing enough case on its own for a Pacific-based franchise, but the added impact of a passionate, devoted fanbase that is rarely seen in Super Rugby takes the argument in favour of a Pacific Island club to another level.

Fans inside ANZ Stadium in Suva weren’t the only ones immersed in the sheer thrill of the battle between these Kiwi rivals, with Twitter exploding in awe of the contest that unravelled in the Pacific.

Maybe it was the atmosphere of the crowd that lifted the Chiefs’ spirits at their home away from home, maybe the Crusaders were still rattled from the allegations made against them on their tour of South Africa, or maybe the hosts were just plain desperate to keep their season intact.

Whatever the reason for their inspirational showing against one of the strongest sides in Super Rugby history, and regardless of the future of a potential Pacific Island-based club, the Chiefs have provided themselves with a glimmer of play-offs hope in what was undoubtedly one of the best games of the season.

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How the Chiefs' shock win over the Crusaders proves why a Pacific Island team could be so successful