Chiefs edge Crusaders with late penalties to win opening match in Super Rugby Pacific

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HAMILTON, New Zealand (AP) — Josh Ioane kicked two late penalties as the Hamilton-based Chiefs beat the seven-time defending champion Crusaders 33-29 Friday in the opening match of the Super Rugby Pacific season.

The win narrowly avenged the Chiefs 25-20 loss to the Crusaders in Hamilton in last year’s final.

But the Chiefs had to overcome an extraordinary comeback by the Crusaders who rallied from 27-10 down at halftime to lead 29-27 with just over 10 minutes to play.

Rookie fullback Chay Fihaki scored two second-half tries and Scott Barrett another as the Crusaders looked again to deny the Chiefs on their home ground.

This time, the Chiefs just managed to regain control in time, with the help of a crucial 50-22 from winger Etene Nanai-Seturo. That put them in position to score the go-ahead penalty and they followed up with another in the last minute to clinch the match.

"We're real pleased to get through round one with a win,” Chiefs captain Luke Jacobson said. “We knew it wasn’t going to be easy. We probably got off to a good start but the Crusaders came out real well in the second half. It took us a while to get our momentum back but when we did we put a couple of three-pointers over.”

The Crusaders were a much-changed team from the one which edged the Chiefs in the final eight months ago.

Head coach Scott Robertson, who led the Crusaders to seven consecutive titles, has been elevated to All Blacks head coach and several key players including flyhalf Richie Mo’unga and veteran forwards Sam Whitelock and Codie Taylor have departed.

The Chiefs were without All Blacks captain Sam Cane and lock Brodie Retallick but have retained more on last year’s final combination than the Crusaders.

The Chiefs particularly were bent on running the ball Friday in warm, sunny conditions on a hard ground and were helped by rule changes between seasons which discourage kicking.

With 68% of possession in the first half, they were able to create first-half tries to Kaylum Boshier, scrumhalf Xavier Roe and Nanai-Seturo. Flyhalf Damian McKenzie kicked two penalties and two conversions.

But McKenzie limped from the field with a leg injury in the 44th minute and that seemed to affect the Chiefs cohesion. Fihaki scored his first try immediately after McKenzie’s departure to spark the Crusaders’ sustained comeback.

He scored his second in the 68th minute and the Crusaders seized the lead for the first time in the match with Rivez Reihana’s conversion. Reihana has taken over the Crusaders No. 10 jersey this season from All Blacks flyhalf Mo’unga, who now is playing in Japan.

The Chiefs were able to fight their way back onto attack in the last five minutes and sealed the match when penalty opportunities presented themselves

Among other rule changes in force this season, players are wearing smart mouth guards which measure head impacts, allowing the match doctor to call for players to undergo head injury assessments. The Crusaders lock Quinten Strange was the first to be called and Chiefs center Anton Lienart-Brown was summoned at a crucial stage in the second half.

Also Friday, ACT Brumbies beat Melbourne Rebels 30-3 in Melbourne, and the Hurricanes defeated Western Force 44-14 in Perth.


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