CHRISTCHURCH – A penalty try ensured the Canterbury Crusaders launched the defence of their Super crown with a win over the Waikato Chiefs on Saturday while top Australian side ACT Brumbies struggled in Japan.
The Crusaders beat the Chiefs 45-23 while the Brumbies had to come from behind for their 32-25 victory over the Sunwolves in Tokyo.
The Crusaders' scoreline blew out after they were awarded a penalty try when desperately clinging to a 26-23 lead inside the last nine minutes.
It put the defending champions 10 points ahead, forcing the Chiefs to take risks which backfired as they gave away two intercept tries in the closing minutes.
The late scoring burst from the Crusaders came after the Chiefs had produced 20 unanswered points to rise from a 19-3 deficit in the first half to lead 20-19 early in the second.
There were nine tries scored in the helter-skelter but error-strewn encounter – seven of them to the Crusaders who were also hit with two yellow cards leaving captain Sam Whitelock unimpressed with their overall effort.
"It's very, very tough when you're down to 14 men for periods. We gave away too many penalties," he said.
Early tries to Matt Todd, Richie Mo'unga and Jordan Taufua saw the Crusaders race to a 19-3 lead before Mo'unga and Michael Alaalatoa were sin-binned which helped the Chiefs work their way into the game and close within two points by half-time.
A Damian McKenzie penalty 15 minutes into the second half put the Chiefs in front leading to a frantic finish in which Whitelock scored to regain the lead for the Crusaders before another McKenzie penalty narrowed the gap to three points.
But what shaped as a tense finish was blown apart when Lachlan Boshier felled Crusaders centre Ryan Crotty with a head-high tackle as he was diving for the line earning the Crusaders a seven-point penalty try.
In a frantic effort to close the gap the Chiefs conceded intercept tries to George Bridge and Manasa Mataele in the closing minutes.
"The scoreboard does not reflect the battle that it was," said Chiefs skipper Sam Cane.
"We were beaten to the punch in the first 20 minutes but to our credit we pulled ourselves back into it."
The Sunwolves, now under the guidance of Japan's national coach and former Highlanders mentor Jamie Joseph, looked a vastly improved unit to that which produced just three wins in the previous two seasons.
They took an early lead against the Brumbies in Tokyo courtesy of tries to Hosea Saumaki and Samoa-born Timothy Lafaele.
When the Brumbies replied with their first try to Lachlan McCaffrey the Sunwolves countered with a second by Saumaki.
On half-time the Brumbies narrowed the gap as centre Kyle Godwin crossed the line and in the second half they showed glimpses of the form required if they are to again dominate the Australian conference with further tries to Tevita Kuridrani, Josh Mann-Rea and Thomas Banks.