The Crusaders have passed possibly their toughest test of the season and in doing so have overturned the recent dominance by the Chiefs, extending their unbeaten run to 12 matches this season in a torrid match in Suva.
The intensity was on a different level, and so was the casualty rate, with three players failing concussion tests.
The Chiefs went into this match having won the last four matches between the sides, and while the collisions were, as expected, fierce and without mercy, the skill level was high as well.
In the end the Crusaders had their defence to thank for their win, but also No10 Richie Mo’unga, the 22-year-old growing in stature throughout and playing a crucial role in terms of leading the red and black attack.
The Crusaders had the early dominance in terms of possession, territory and the scoreboard through two Mo’unga penalties, but the Chiefs, beaten only once before this match, hit back as they invariably do, this time through Tim Nanai-Williams and James Lowe.
The Chiefs, hosting this match in Suva rather than Hamilton or New Plymouth, took the halftime lead 17-13, but this Crusaders team under coach Scott Robertson have proven time and again that they thrive in the second half through their superior fitness and composure, and so it proved again.
An Aaron Cruden try from an attacking scrum with 10 minutes remaining put the Chiefs to within striking distance, but the Crusaders held on; aided hugely by two wayward lineouts from the Chiefs in the dying minutes.
There were massive opportunities lost, but the Crusaders were probably worthy winners.
Straight away it was evident that this match was a step up in terms of any others the Crusaders had played this season – even allowing for their battle against the Hurricanes in Christchurch last weekend.
The Crusaders couldn’t bully the Chiefs in the set piece and while their scrum creaked a couple of times on their own feed, but the ball was cleared quickly and the danger passed.
Both teams lost midfielders to concussion early in the first half, with McNicol leaving the field for the Chiefs and Crusaders No12 Crotty leaving soon after with the same issue.
Remarkably, Donald, McNicol’s replacement, did likewise.
The Crusaders, who started without All Blacks flanker Matt Todd due to a concussion suffered last weekend, missed the steadying influence of Crotty.
Anton Lienert-Brown’s shift to second-five suited the Chiefs, who were already without Charlie Ngatai, a player who has been battling concussion and was withdrawn earlier in the week due to headaches. Lienert-Brown, outstanding for the All Blacks last year, was direct and assured outside Cruden, with Donald as ever proving a safe pair of hands.
The Chiefs came second here but they will be dangerous beasts in the playoffs.
Cruden and Damian McKenzie were dangerous every time they got the ball.
A sleight of hand from Cruden helped Nanai-Williams to his try and no matter the pressure put on them they always seemed to escape and put their team in a better position.
David Havili’s try for the Crusaders early in the second half was crucial.
It came following a dangerous chip kick from Cruden, taken by Mo’unga near his 22m line, and the Crusaders cut loose via Jack Goodhue and Seta Tamanivalu.
It was here that the Crusaders put the Chiefs in a headlock and refused to let go.
To compound matters for the Chiefs, Cruden missed a relatively easy penalty, and then replacement hooker Ben Funnell capitalised on a brilliant Mo’unga break to score, remarkably, his fifth try of the season.
Mo’unga’s conversion on the left sideline pushed the Crusaders to an eight-point margin.
There was drama to come, but the Crusaders held on. They increasingly look like champion material.
Crusaders 31 (Heiden Bedwell-Curtis, David Havili, Ben Funnell tries; Richie Mo’unga 4 pens, 2 cons)
Chiefs 24 (Tim Nanai-Williams, James Lowe, Kane Hames, Aaron Cruden tries; Aaron Cruden con, Damian McKenzie con)