How Big Game At ANZ Stadium Won
CHIEFS OUTSMARTED CRUSADERS BY REALISING BACK TO BASICS ONLY WAY TO PLAY IN WET CONDITIONS IN SUVA
Even in a competition as bizarre as Super Rugby, where the Stormers, a team nine points behind the Crusaders, can be ahead of them on the table, the Chiefs playing a home game in Suva stands out. When the match was announced last year, in the warm glow of post World Cup jubilation, it didn’t attract a great deal of attention. A joint venture between the Chiefs, a Dunedin company behind a ticketing agency and the Fijian government for a Super Rugby game in Suva seemed, at the time, nothing more than a pleasant, sunny diversion, featuring teams that finished fifth (the Chiefs) and seventh (the Crusaders) in the 2015 competition. In fact the game last Friday night not only matched the top two New Zealand sides, but may also prove to be the most important roundrobin game this year. There was plenty that was unexpected.
Easy to forget that tropical paradises may stay warm, but they can also be very, very wet. The Chiefs took on board the fact rain was lashing down, and, for reasons that will no doubt be grimly examined this week, the Crusaders played as if it was a sunny day. In blunt terms, the Chiefs outsmarted the Crusaders by realising that with the ball like soap and the surface slippery, back to basics isn’t the best way to win, it’s the only way.
The process for the Chiefs required, as it often has in past games between the two teams, intense physicality.
Please step forward Brodie Retallick. The abiding memory from the game will always be his sensational 30-metre run, which included the best imitation of a David Campese goose step ever performed by a 121kg lock. But what was actually even more impressive was the strength and explosiveness it took for him to wrench the ball away from a Crusaders forward who seemed to have it in full control. The snatch and grab was so swift and unexpected that when Retallick was 10 metres away with the ball, there were still Crusaders yelling and pointing to bewildered team-mates to give chase. And nobody is better suited than Sam Cane to the blanket, smothering defence the Chiefs at their best use to drain the will from their opponents.
Cane lives by the fearless attitude that prompted Richie McCaw to say, after the grinding, desperate, second half of the 2011 World Cup Final against France, “Jeez, that was fun,” and mean it. The temperature in Suva might have been a lazy 20 degrees higher than on the frost-bitten Reporoa fields where Cane learned his footy as a schoolboy but, on a night when close, physical contact was more important than ranging wide, he was dynamic. Add in, as in recent times you must with the Chiefs, the influence of Stephen Donald. He wasn’t able to break the Crusaders line the way he burst through Welsh defenders, but his tackling was inspirational, and between the experience and shrewdness he and Aaron Cruden provided, the Chiefs had their tactics for the night sorted. By comparison the Crusaders played most of the match as if the ball was dry, and the field was hard.
Changing direction was so difficult that even Israel Dagg, who showed in the tests with Wales he’s back to his exciting best, could hardly evade a tackle.
All is far from lost for the Crusaders, as long as they play their last two games against the Rebels and the Hurricanes as though their title chances depend on them. That shouldn’t be hard, as they actually do.
It would be astonishing if the Chiefs didn’t belt the Reds on Friday, which could mean the last game in round robin for them, against the Highlanders in Dunedin, may be, by wildest chance, a thrilling, crucial, finale to a competition as disjointed and illogical as a Boris Johnson speech.
Chiefs pivot Aaron Cruden is well looked after by the Crusaders at the ANZ Stadium in Suva last Friday.