An impregnable defence and two tries to Cullen Grace saw the Canterbury Crusaders overpower the Waikato Chiefs 20-7 in a ferocious Super Rugby semi-final in Christchurch on Friday.
The Crusaders, denied possession for long periods, were forced to make a Super Rugby record 222 tackles in a heroic performance on a wet and windy night.
The 12-times champions extended their remarkable record of never losing a home knockout match — they have now won 27 in the 27-year history of the southern hemisphere club championship — and will play the winner of Saturday’s clash between the Auckland Blues and ACT Brumbies in next weekend’s final.
The Crusaders, already without All Blacks flanker Ethan Blackadder after he dislocated a shoulder last week, had Sam Whitelock pull out before kickoff with a thumb injury and then flanker Pablo Matera was gone in the 32nd minute after picking up his second yellow card.
In the 20 minutes the Crusaders were down to 14 men they scored seven unanswered points.
Playing with the strong wind behind them they led 20-7 at half-time and then held their line playing into the wind in a scoreless second half.
“The boys love a challenge and there were times where we were down to 14 men and really had to front,” captain Scott Barrett said, adding that “patience when the Chiefs had their moments” was key.
“Finals footy is about defence and there was plenty of good effort there,” he said.
Chiefs captain Brad Weber found it difficult to accept defeat, saying the Crusaders’ high tackle count showed his side should have scored more than one try.
“That one really hurt, there’ll probably be a lot of regrets,” he said.
“It’s one of those ones where I feel like we lost it rather than we got beaten.”
Such was the strength of the Crusaders defence that in one 10-minute period in the first half the Chiefs camped on the Crusaders line and had a one-man advantage when Matera picked up his first yellow card.
The nearest they came to scoring saw Pita Gus Sowakula lose the ball diving for a try and when Richie Mo’unga snapped up a loose ball it sparked a Crusaders counter-attack which resulted in a try to Grace at the other end of the field.
Mo’unga, who had landed two early penalties, slotted the conversion to put the Crusaders ahead 13-0 after 23 minutes.
Brodie Retallick won the restart for the Chiefs and they held the ball for 15 phases before big prop Angus Ta’avao scrambled over.
Bryn Gatland’s conversion completed the Chiefs scoring while a Mo’unga break set up Grace for his second try and the Crusaders turned with a 13-point lead.
The Chiefs spent much of the second half hammering away at the Crusaders line but when they had a clear scoring chance Quinn Tupaea’s pass to an unmarked player went over the touchline.