Fly halves and a full back on fire in Fijian epic

Matt Porter Roar Guru

By , Matt Porter is a Roar Guru

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    Goodness me, that heavyweight bout between the Crusaders and Chiefs was a game of almost absurd quality last night.

    Where to start? The sensational back play. The blistering line speed. The brutal collisions. The wonderfully raucous Suva crowd. The no-nonsense refereeing. The lead constantly changing hands. The ambition. The desire. The skills. The speed. Scotty Stevenson’s halftime Fijian fashion show.

    It bloody well had it all – including a monstrous hit by Crusaders blindside Heiden Bedwell-Curtis, albeit on his own fullback.

    That the Crusaders got the points to preserve their remarkable unbeaten run was almost shaded by the contest. Almost.

    Are there spots up for grabs against the touring Lions or something? Virtually everyone on the park put their hand up, except maybe Crusaders half back Bryn Hall and Chiefs replacement hooker Hika Elliot – the latter’s two duffed lineout throws at the death cost his team any chance of an emphatic final say.

    This was a see-saw on a roller coaster, as hectic as that sounds. I could bang on about virtually every individual performance, but you’d end up shrieking at the surfeit of superlatives, so I’m going to zone in on just three.

    Firstly, Aaron Cruden. What a blinder from the little All Black pivot, and what a reminder that he is anything but yesterday’s man. He stamped his authority on this game from the outset, taking the line on time and again with jinking bursts for a team-high 72 running metres.

    Drilling the ball into the corners from both feet, always finding grass and tackling everything that came his way around the boot laces, the angle he ran to set up Tim Nanai-Williams’ try with that peach of a long ball and the other he ran to score himself, from a scrum no less, just added to the sadness – sadness that he won’t be doing those things in this part of the world for at least a few years after he jets off to Montpellier in Spring.

    Like everything else he did – except kick for goal – Cruden’s timing was immaculate given the context of Beauden Barrett’s rather muted display against the same opposition last weekend.

    But here’s the thing: Cruden’s opposite, Richie Mo’unga, was arguably better!

    (Image: AAP Image/Dave Hunt)

    The Crusaders ten put on an attacking masterclass, instigating two of his team’s tries on his way to a game-high 88 run metres. But it was in the kicking of virtually every point on offer – four penalties and two from three conversions – that was a stark departure from his counterpart and ultimately what won the game.

    His kicks for touch were something to behold – they were booming things that carved off half the length of the pitch in some instances.

    Fittingly it was Cruden’s kick over the defence that Mo’unga latched onto to find space on the outside to set up the play that ultimately led to David Havili’s belting try that regained the lead for the ‘visitors’.

    He was at it again when he sliced through the Chiefs defence before having the smarts to find blockbusting crowd favourite Manasa Mataele. A quick recycle from the ruck had substitute hooker Ben Funnell burrowing over in the corner. Mo’unga added the flourish with a sideline conversion.

    Mo’unga’s performance in such a white-hot cauldron is the sort that can shift the dial on a player in selectors’ minds. Hansen and co will continue to watch him with forensic interest.

    Lastly, but not least, I can’t not touch on Damian McKenzie. As is usual, the Chiefs diminutive dynamo just couldn’t stay out of this game. He was typically brilliant under the high ball. There were scything counters through broken play. He had great presence of mind to not die with the ball putting others into space while he was at it. Plus the penetrating wipers kicks. It was another vintage effort.

    It was all summed up by one passage of play in the 16th minute. Fielding a high ball eight metres on the Crusaders side of halfway, McKenzie scampered on a run in which he stepped, dummied and swerved in seamless succession before offloading in the tackle to a flying James Lowe.

    Then as first receiver at the next ruck he threw a no-look inside ball to Anton Anton Lienert-Brown before being the first to clean out the ensuing ruck, albeit ineffectively. But he’s excused for that, being a back and all, and a rather small one at that.

    I could go on and on about how good Goodhue, Luke Romano, Nathan Harris and Kane Hames were or how epic the battle between Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallic was, but I’m sensing you’re getting the picture, so I’ll just leave it at that.

    The bloke whose idea it was to stage this annual fixture in Fiji deserves an extra slurp from the kava bowl. The packed house was in splendid, passionate voice and gave this encounter the atmosphere it deserved.

    Suffice to say, it wasn’t a bad game, and it was one that, despite the loss, would have had my mate and staunch Chiefs man John ‘JT’ Taylor, who passed away this week, smiling down from above. Rest in peace, JT.