The Crusaders Super Rugby dynasty continues.
For the seventh time in as many years, Scott Robertson’s side have lifted the title, defeating the Chiefs 25-20 at Hamilton’s FMG Stadium.
In a thrilling victory on enemy territory, the Crusaders’ big-game experience came to the fore, bringing them back from 20-15 down in the second half to add even more silverware to their collection.
Victory sends coach Robertson out a winner, with the Crusaders completing a second heist in as many years, after hijacking the Blues in the 2022 Eden Park final.
Along with departing club greats Sam Whitelock and Richie Mo’unga, Robertson leaves the Crusaders with a title every year since he took charge in 2017.
The Chiefs will return to the drawingboard for 2024 under Clayton McMillan, after an entire season that saw them drop just two games.
Booed onto the ground by a soldout FMG Stadium crowd, the Crusaders opened the scoring through the boot of Mo’unga, who coolly kicked a penalty inside the first 10 minutes.
Down on the scoreboard, the Chiefs were then reduced to 14 men, when midfielder Anton Lienert-Brown was shown a yellow card after a head clash with new All Blacks call-up Dallas McLeod. The hit saw McLeod forced from the field for a concussion test and the negative result forced him out of the rest of the game.
Even with their numerical advantage, the Crusaders struggled to capitalise on their extra man. Damian McKenzie equalised with a penalty of his own to lock the scores up at 3-3 midway through the first half.
Back at their full quota, the Chiefs came to life.
A brutal tackle from Luke Jacobson on Will Jordan forced a turnover deep in Crusaders territory, before a perfectly timed pass from Alex Nankivell – playing for the last time in Chiefs colours – sent fullback Shaun Stevenson over for the first try of the night.
Stevenson’s score was the perfect riposte to All Blacks selectors, after he was overlooked for coach Ian Foster’s first squad of 2023, only called in as injury cover for the start of the Rugby Championship.
The Crusaders were handed a boost, when a second Chief was sent to the sin bin, with Jacobson shown yellow for repeat infringements by the home side.
This time, the Crusaders didn’t waste their advantage, with Codie Taylor scoring from the back of a lineout drive to cut the Chiefs’ lead to two points.
McKenzie missed the chance to put the Chiefs ahead by five, a mistake that would prove costly, when Mo’unga scored the Crusaders’ second try and converted to instead swing the score 15-10 in his side’s favour.
Replacement back Chay Fihaki missed an ambitious 50-metres penalty kick of the first half, but the Chiefs had everything to do after the break, if they were to end a 10-year wait for a title.
Stevenson ensured the Chiefs started the second half on the front foot, sending winger Emoni Narawa over in the corner, after a break down the right.
McKenzie held his nerve with the boot to swing the seesawing scoreline back towards the hosts at 17-15, before a further penalty put the Chiefs ahead by five with half an hour to play.
A break from McKenzie looked to have sent Narawa over for his second try of the second half, sending the crowd into raptures on the hour mark, only to see it disallowed, with the Chiefs No.10 deemed offside at the lineout.
The Chiefs continued to withstand Crusaders attacks, but were reduced to 14 players for the third time, when co-captain Sam Cane was shown yellow, as ill-discipline on the goal-line played into enemy hands.
While Narawa was denied a second try, Taylor wasn’t, as the Crusaders hooker crashed over again from a lineout drive, giving Mo’unga a kick to take the lead.
With the experience of six consecutive titles behind him, Mo’unga didn’t miss inside the final 10 minutes.
With less than five minutes to go, McKenzie had the chance to put the Chiefs ahead with a penalty from halfway, but his kick fell short.
One final Mo’unga penalty was the icing on the cake for the Crusaders, who continue to leave all challengers in their wake.
“It’s pretty surreal, to be honest,” said captain Scott Barrett. “I don’t know how we got away with that – the Chiefs have been the form team all season, we knew it would be a heck of a job and it turned out to be that tonight.”
Crusaders 25 (Taylor 2, Mo’unga tries, Mo’unga 2 conversions, Mo’unga 2 penalties) Chiefs 20 (Stevenson, Narawa tries; McKenzie 2 conversions, McKenzie 2 penalties)