By RICHARD KNOWLER - The Press
It was almost as though some wag stuffed the ubiquitous cow bells with cotton wool.
Ahead of this fixture there was plenty of confidence in the upper North Island that the Chiefs could roll the Crusaders in Hamilton, that they could use their home-ground advantage and another week back in their own beds to hang a killer punch on the seven-time Super champions. But it was the visiting Crusaders who eventually ran out 26-19 winners.
Midway through the first half it was obvious the script was not going to have a feel-good plot for the 17,800 Chiefs fans that rocked up to Waikato Stadium and as their hopes of a win dipped, so did the clanking of the famous bells.
For starters, the Crusaders were just not prepared to share the ball and even when the Chiefs launched a late rally in the final five minutes the punters were too nervous to clang their instruments.
And what a pulsating finish it was. The Chiefs had their opportunities to grab a draw as they trailed by seven points, especially when they had an attacking scrum inside the red zone.
But their hopes fizzled when referee Mark Lawrence penalised Ben Afeaki for dropping his bind and collapsing the set piece. And that was that. The bells remained quiet.
Just as they went for width and moved the ball across the park to punch holes in the Chiefs' defensive blanket in the first spell, the Crusaders opted to keep possession close to their hearts in the second stanza as they looked to use runners off the ruck and frustrate their opponents by denying them the ball.
Although first five-eighth Dan Carter grabbed some of the limelight by overtaking Andrew Mehrtens' milestone of 990 points in the first half – Carter kicked four penalties and two conversions to push his total to 996 – much of the kudos belonged to the forwards' Mr Perpetual Motion Kieran Read, halfback Kahn Fotuali'i and left wing Zac Guildford.
While No8 Read was all over the park to either cart up the ball, unleash clever pop passes or zero in on an opposition ball carrier, Fotuali'i – especially in the first half when he scored two tries – was dangerous on attack.
Fotuali'i, who replaced a concussed Andy Ellis earlier this week, caused real bother with his support play and talented wing Guildford frequently kept the Chiefs defence guessing as he roamed the field.
Fotuali'i's second try was a sizzler, the No9 finishing off a movement that followed several turnovers late in the first half.
Fotuali'i struck gold when he tore off from the base of a ruck to dummy the Chief's defence inside and out.
He left All Black Richard Kahui grasping thin air along the way, before Fotuali'i fed fullback Jared Payne who then returned the favour to send the No9 over the white chalk.
Carter's conversion pushed the Crusaders out to a 20-9 lead and the Chiefs, having struggled to annex enough territory to threaten with five-pointers, looked to be on the ropes.
But that changed soon after Stephen Donald's restart when Chiefs No8 Colin Bourke was used as a battering ram in the midfield and easily shed the tackles of Ti'i Paulo and Owen Franks and Kahui finished off the movement for the home side's opening try.
Just six points were scored in the second half, with Carter and Donald trading penalties.
Crusaders 26 (Kahn Fotuali'i 2 tries; Dan Carter 4 pen, 2 conv) Chiefs 19 (Richard Kahui try; Stephen Donald 4 pen, conv).