Super Rugby Pacific: Chiefs avenge 2023 final defeat with season-opening victory over champion Crusaders

The Chiefs have come from behind in the dying moments to avenge their 2023 Super Rugby Pacific final defeat to defending champions Crusaders 33-29 to start their new season at Hamilton's FMG Stadium.

Leading 17-3 early, the home side lost the services of star first-five Damian McKenzie through injury soon after halftime and eventually lost their lead altogether, as the southerners found their rhythm through the second half.

A try double to fullback Chay Fihaki propelled the Crusaders into a late 29-27 lead, but McKenzie's replacement - Josh Ioane stepped up to slot two penalties in the dying moments and delight the home fans.

Josh Ioane kicks a late penalty against the Crusaders.
Josh Ioane kicks a late penalty against the Crusaders. Photo credit: Photosport

After an energetic start, the Chiefs dominated early possession and were rewarded with a penalty to open the scoring.

All Blacks prop Tamaiti Williams was an early casualty for the Crusaders, limping off the field with a hamstring twinge, after dashing upfield from a lineout in his own half.

Former Chiefs first-five Rivez Rehana levelled the scores with a penalty for the visitors, but Chiefs flanker Kaylum Boshier notched up the first try, after a kick to the corner put winger Sevu Reece under pressure and the forwards piled on top of him.

When McKenzie counterattacked from a shallow kick and found fullback Shaun Stevenson in support, halfback Xavier Roe had a second try for the Chiefs, with last year's final seemingly a distant memory. 

Reece struck back from a Crusaders raid, picking up from a maul near the line and powering past two defenders to score.

From a close-range scrum, the Chiefs moved left, where winger Etene Nanai-Seturo propped past some flailing defence for the try. He almost had a second, when he kicked and chased, but was beaten to the touchdown by retreating halfback Mitch Drummond.

McKenzie slotted a penalty on halftime and the Chiefs took a 27-10 advantage into the break.

They suffered a double blow soon after the restart, when McKenzie hobbled off, and the Crusaders immediately struck from their feared lineout drive, with Fihaki scoring under the posts. 

Reihana produced a 50-22 that put the visitors back on attack and from the quick throw, captain Scott Barrett charged onto a short pass and stretched out to plant on the tryline.

The Crusaders scrum began to exert some dominance, with veteran prop Joe Moody dipping into his deep bag of front row tricks.  

The Chiefs celebrate a try to Xavier Roe.
The Chiefs celebrate a try to Xavier Roe. Photo credit: Photosport

From another forward assault, lock Josh Hannah was held up over the line by Chiefs halfback Cortez Ratima, but from the restart, Fihaki sliced through the defence for his second and Taha Kemara's conversion put his side ahead for the first time.

With fulltime looming, the Chiefs were held up short, but Ioane slotted a penalty from in front of the posts to restore the Chiefs advantage. A scrum penalty near halfway enabled him to guide another long-range kick home and the Crusaders were unable to regain the ball from the kickoff, before the final whistle.

"Real please, round one with a win," reflected Chiefs skipper Luke Jacobson. "It wasn't going to be easy, we probably got off to a good start, but the Crusaders came out really well in the second half.

"I wouldn't say it took us by surprise, but we fought back well. It took a bit to get some momentum back, but once we did, we held onto it and managed to get a couple of three-pointers over."

The Crusaders must regroup from their setback, when they host NSW Waratahs next Saturday, while the Chiefs host ACT Brumbies the next day.

Chiefs 33 (Boshier, Roe, Nanai-Seturo try; McKenzie 2 conversions & 2 penalties, Stevenson conversion, Ioane 2 penalties) Crusaders 29 (Reece, Fihaki 2, Barrett try; Reihana 2 conversions & penalty, Kemara conversion)