WELLINGTON (Reuters) - The Waikato Chiefs came from 20-0 down after 21 minutes to hand runaway Super Rugby leaders the Canterbury Crusaders only a second defeat of the season after a breathless 80 minutes in the heat of Fiji’s National Stadium on Saturday.
If anyone doubted the strength in depth of New Zealand rugby, they would have been disabused of the notion by the quality of the running rugby played by both sides in front of an appreciative crowd in Suva.
Bottom of the New Zealand conference 26 points behind the double defending champions at the start of the contest, the Chiefs looked destined for yet another defeat when they conceded three unanswered tries in 11 minutes.
Running the ball from everywhere, they conjured up three tries of their own to narrow the gap to a point at the break then scored three more after halftime to secure a famous victory.
The Crusaders still look destined to top the Super Rugby standings at the end of the regular season with a lead of 13 points over their nearest rivals with two rounds remaining.
The Chiefs, champions in 2012 and 2013, will struggle to get involved in post-season play but could now at least put a gloss of respectability on a season that has been mostly struggle for the Hamilton-based side.
“I’m just incredibly proud, that’s one I’ll remember,” said Chiefs captain Sam Cane.
“It gives us a sniff (of the playoffs), just a sniff.”
The Crusaders were strong favourites and the match looked like going according to the script when, seconds after flyhalf Richie Mo’unga had kicked an early penalty, Scott Barrett crossed for their first try.
Showing the sort of pace more normally associated with his brothers Beauden and Jodie, the All Blacks lock outran a string of Chiefs backs over 50 metres to touch down.
Scrumhalf Mitch Drummond added the second from close range after 16 minutes and five minutes later Sevu Reece showed what a proper winger’s pace looked like to score his 10th try of the season.
The Chiefs have some pace in their backline too, though, and fullback Solomon Alaimalo dashed 60 metres to get the Chiefs on the board after being set free by Tyler Ardron’s neat offload.
Hooker Samisoni Taukei’aho added the second from close range in the 35th minute but it was another sweeping move with superb passing interchanges that earned lock Jesse Parete his try two minutes before the break.
Winger Braydon Ennor stretched the Crusaders’ lead to 27-19 three minutes after the resumption but the Chiefs would not be cowed by the nine-times Super Rugby champions.
Scrumhalf Brad Weber, in a reward for a fine performance, finished off another all-out assault on the Canterbury line in the 48th minute and the Chiefs finally hit the front courtesy of a blistering run from winger Shaun Stevenson.
Holding a six-point lead with 13 minutes remaining, the Chiefs still eschewed the conservative and replacement back Tumua Manu snatched a 22 dropout out of the air to seal a famous victory with a sixth try two minutes from time.
Reporting by Nick Mulvenney, editing by Sudipto Ganguly