February 24, 2018

Gallagher Chiefs go down 45-23 in season opener.

In their opening match of Investec Super Rugby for 2018, the Gallagher Chiefs have gone down to defending champions the Crusaders by 45 points to 23 at AMI Stadium in Christchurch.

A gutsy comeback from the Gallagher Chiefs had seen them recover from 16 points down to take the lead early in the second half, but a strong final quarter from the home side, which included three tries in the final 10 minutes, saw them kick on for a bonus point win.

Inside the opening minute the Chiefs showed their intent, launching a dangerous attack deep into Crusaders territory, with first five Damian McKenzie setting Anton Lienert-Brown into space and the centre burst clear before being pulled up just five metres short, which was followed by a Chiefs knock on from the next phase.

The Crusaders cleared and soon charged upfield themselves and, after several phases near the line, loose forward Matt Todd muscled his way over to score the opening try of the evening.

For the following five minutes the home side enjoyed more good field position and just as a relieving Gallagher Chiefs penalty had seen them work their way out of danger, a loose pass was pounced on by Crusaders first five Richie Mo'unga for a second try in the opening 12 minutes.

A good response from the Gallagher Chiefs saw them put pressure on the Crusaders defence, ending in a penalty which McKenzie chipped over from right in front to get the visitors on the board.

The Chiefs began to look dangerous the more time they spent with ball in hand, and a brilliant break from fullback Charlie Ngatai forced the scrambling Crusaders defence to commit a professional foul close to the line, and Mo'unga was shown the yellow card.

Once more the Crusaders defence proved tough to break down and they were able to turn the ball over, soon finding themselves down the other end of the field on the back of a couple of generous penalties.

Despite the one-man disadvantage, the Crusaders kept their hands on the ball and patiently worked towards the Chiefs line. The defence eventually cracked with an overlap out wide seeing Number 8 Jordan Taufua dot down. David Havili added the extras to extend the lead to 16 points.

Like they had throughout the first half, the Chiefs responded strongly to conceding points. McKenzie again sparked a long range attack as he put Sam Cane into a gap with the flanker holding off the defence from near halfway to score.

From the restart a high swinging arm from Crusaders prop Michael Alaalatoa saw another yellow card to give the Chiefs a boost as halftime approached.

This time they were able to capitalise as a long period on attack ending with McKenzie setting up another try, feeding wing Solomon Alaimalo who danced through the defensive line for a try right on the stroke of halftime.

McKenzie converted both tries and the gap was narrowed to just two points at the break.

The Chiefs took that momentum into the start of the second half as they enjoyed all of the early territory and possession but were unable to turn that dominance into more points.

With the Crusaders restored to 15 men the match began to open up, with the frantic pace of the second half making for some exciting rugby.

At the 55 minute mark, McKenzie landed a penalty to give his side the lead for the first time in the match, and at the same time several fresh legs were brought on off the bench with the visitors looking nicely set up for the final quarter.

But the defending champions began to show their class, not panicking after falling behind, and out of nowhere centre Jack Goodhue made a break in midfield which ended in lock Sam Whitelock crossing for their fourth try, converted by Mo'unga.

Soon after retaking the lead, the gap was closed to three after McKenzie struck a 48 metre penalty following some more scintillating counter attacking play.

With 10 minutes remaining, the Crusaders looked to put the game out of reach as they turned down two kickable penalties and opted for the lineout, with their second attempt ending in a dramatic moment which ultimately ended the contest - as Ryan Crotty went to squeeze over in the corner, Chiefs replacement Lachlan Boshier was yellowed carded for a high tackle and a penalty try was awarded.

Now needing to score twice, the Chiefs tried desperately to chase the game, and a wide McKenzie pass was latched onto by Crusaders wing George Bridge for an intercept try. Just minutes later this was followed by another intercept try to Manasa Mataele as Lienert-Brown this time threw a pass inside his own 22 which went to the wrong man.

The late flurry of points blew the scoreline out much further than the tight contest would suggest, but in the end the Chiefs leave Christchurch with nothing to show for their efforts and the Crusaders taking the full five points.

Gallagher Chiefs 23 (Sam Cane, Solomon Alaimalo tries; Damian McKenzie 2 cons, 3 pens) Crusaders 45 (Matt Todd, Richie Mo'unga, Jordan Taufua, Sam Whitelock, George Bridge, Manasa Mataele tries, penalty try; Mo'unga 3 cons, Havili con) HT: 17-19.

The Gallagher Chiefs will stay on the road for their next match, heading to Eden Park in Auckland on Friday night for a local derby against the Blues.