The Chiefs produced a fantastic defensive effort to defeat the Crusaders 20-19 at Waikato Stadium in Hamilton, the defending champions denying the surging visitors space and opportunity to secure their second successive Super Rugby semi-final victory against the seven-time champions.
The Chiefs scored two tries to one in the second half, claiming 17 points in 17 minutes to establish an 11-point margin midway through the stanza after handing errors and turnovers had cruelled them in the first period, and their defence that had ensured they trailed only by six points at the break then held firm enough as the tournament favourites refused to lie down.
That defensive effort was illustrated best by Asaeli Tikoirotuma's effort to make a try-saving intercept in the second half, after an impressive bust by Kieran Read, and then Aaron Cruden's last-ditch tackle to deny Ryan Crotty a try in the final minutes after the Crusaders had reduced the margin to one point.
Only once did the Crusaders breach the Chiefs' line, when Israel Dagg stepped and accelerated past Tikoirotuma and danced down the touchline for a sideline try converted by Dan Carter to bring the seven-time champions back within four points; but such was the strength of their wall that Carter, after landing a penalty goal to make the game a one-point affair, went for a drop goal on the run rather than risk another set of phases with ball in hand.
The Crusaders had crushed all before them in their previous five games, including a 43-15 hammering of the Chiefs in Christchurch three weeks ago, but the seven-time champions, so clinical and precise in humbling Queensland Reds in their Super Rugby qualifier at AMI Stadium, lost their nerve when it counted to continue a dreadful recent play-off run. The Crusaders looked either side of half-time as if they were likely to reach the final, but once again they came up short: they have reached the semi-finals in each of the past five seasons but they have reached the final only once, in 2011, and they failed to add to their trophy cabinet.
Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder admitted to a sinking feeling of deja vu in the second half. "The Chiefs showed real pride and guts and courage, and we didn't nail our opportunities," he said. "The fact that we didn't quite take them; I don't think it's the reflection of a bad team."
Chiefs coach Dave Rennie was in no doubt why his team had improved so much in three weeks since they were humbled in Christchurch. "While you don't want to talk about those things at the time, our attitude [in Christchurch] wasn't quite right and maybe we weren't quite as desperate because we had qualified for the play-offs," Rennie said. "It was a massive effort in the second half. We're really proud of the effort but we need another one next week."
The Crusaders dominated the first half, but they were unable to secure anything other than three Carter penalty goals from further than 40 metres. The Chiefs were no more threatening with ball in hand in a hugely physical and combative contest, with Cruden's 21st-minute penalty the hosts' lone reply.
The second spell opened in dramatic style, with a Crusaders attack snuffed out by Tikoirotuma, who intercepted Read's pass to an unmarked Zac Guildford after the Crusaders skipper had seemed likely to score himself had he held the ball. The Chiefs made the Crusaders pay for the error, with Cruden landing a second penalty before Japan-bound Lelia Masaga powered through the heart of the visitors' pack from a standing start 15 metres out. Cruden then put the Chiefs 11 points clear with an intercept try he described as "a bit opportunistic", collecting a blind pass from Crotty and scooting 50 metres to touch down under the posts.
"I just anticipated it and luckily he threw it for me and I held on to it," Cruden said of Crotty's pass.
Dagg hit straight back with a brilliant solo try, defeating the Chiefs' front-line and cover defence with two memorable outside swerves, and Carter's sideline conversion, followed by his fourth penalty with six minutes to play, set up a classic finish. But the Crusaders were unable to do better that Carter's second missed dropped goal attempt.
"That's incredibly disappointing," Read said. "You've just got to give it to the Chiefs; they did it well. They were possibly a bit more clinical ... we've got be better than this."
Cruden said the memory of the Crusaders' victory over the Chiefs in Christchurch had been key in the hosts' preparation for the game he described afterwards as "a colossal challenge".
"Our pride was damaged heavily a couple of weeks ago by a quality Crusaders side, and we really wanted to rectify that," Cruden said. "Just with desire, the passion in front of our home crowd, our friends and family, probably got us home tonight ... we felt when we had the ball we were stretching them well, but they were probably doing the same to us. The Crusaders are such a quality side when they keep the ball, the continuity going, and we had to really back our defence. Probably our desperation saved us."