2023 Chiefs vs Crusaders - FInal

Super Rugby Pacific Semifinals Recap: Crusaders, Chiefs Bound For Final

Super Rugby Pacific Semifinals Recap: Crusaders, Chiefs Bound For Final

Since the regular season began in late February, Super Rugby Pacific has been whittling down teams. Two are left standing in contention for the 2023 title.

Jun 19, 2023 by Briar Napier
Super Rugby Pacific Semifinals Recap: Crusaders, Chiefs Bound For Final

Now, we are down to two.

Since the regular season began in late February, Super Rugby Pacific has been gradually whittling down teams and the number left standing to compete for the 2023 title. 

Following the semifinal round this past weekend, the clubs that remain have been decided.

There are the Crusaders, the longstanding power of the competition, looking to expand on their record-setting dynasty. 

Then, there are the Chiefs, past champions who got too used to early postseason exits over the past decade and largely have been stuck in neutral in a tier below the elite for multiple seasons – until now.

They’ll clash, one last time this season, with the winner earning the spoils and glory that comes with being the best team in a given season in one of the greatest club rugby competitions on Earth. 

Their semifinal victories (where each team won with varying levels of comfort) set up the final fixture of 2023. The two already have played two regular-season thrillers this season.

The world will be watching, but if you’ve caught any glimpses at all of the two finalists, you know for a fact they are bound to deliver in full force.

Here’s a look at the recent semifinal round, as two New Zealand-based rivals – the Chiefs and Crusaders – won to earn their spots in next weekend’s final, which will get underway Saturday at 4:05 a.m. Eastern, live on FloRugby in the United States.

Crusaders Blast Blues, Extend Record Home Playoff Run

Even following their missteps early in the season, and the long-known, upcoming departure of acclaimed coach Scott Robertson to coach the New Zealand national team next year, the Crusaders being in the final once again pretty much always was going to be a formality, wasn’t it? 

The team’s play in the playoffs always seems to go up a few notches, and that was no different, as Robertson’s side romped to a place in next weekend’s final. 

The most accomplished squad in Super Rugby history will be playing for its 12th title in the competition, after demolishing a New Zealand rival in the Blues by a 52-15 margin at the Orangetheory Stadium, extending the Crusaders’ historic home playoff winning streak to an incredible 29 matches. 

From the moment Braydon Ennor crossed over for a try for the Christchurch club three minutes in, the Crusaders (who were facing the team they defeated in last season’s final) looked determined to be on the prowl for playing a fifth straight title, as they made things largely drama-free on a crisp winter evening. 

A try from Leicester Fainga’anuku (the first as part of a brace for the 23-year-old, fast-rising winger) plus a conversion and penalty kick from longtime All Black Richie Mo’unga, made it 15-0 inside 15 minutes, leaving the Blues shell-shocked from the jump, despite carrying a four-game winning streak into the match, the longest active run of victories in Super Rugby entering the semifinals. 

Further tries by Will Jordan and Codie Taylor upped the margin to 32-3 by halftime, while Fainga’anuku’s second, and a Fergus Burke five-pointer for emphasis with under 10 minutes to go, merely had the Crusaders piling it on in the second half, turning what had been a tight fixture over the two times the clubs had met in the regular season (both Crusaders wins, by a 34-28 gap in Round 4 and a 15-3 scoreline in Round 12) into an undramatic blowout. 

Second-half tries from the Blues’ Beauden Barrett and Caleb Clarke meant little, other than the fact that Barrett – a two-time World Rugby Player of the Year and one of the stars of New Zealand’s World Cup-winning team in 2015 – potentially scored the last try of his career for the Auckland club, as he, along with several other All Black teammates, will move to Japan and play at club level for Toyota Verblitz following the World Cup later in the year

The Blues undoubtedly have made strides over the past two seasons, making it at least to the semifinals in back-to-back (non-regionalized) campaigns for the first time since 1997-1998, but until someone (or something) knocks the Crusaders off of their perch, the Blues’ ceiling – along with the most of the rest of Super Rugby – remains limited with it.

Chiefs’ Defense Holds Firm To Book A Slot In The Final

For a team that was the highest-scoring unit during the Super Rugby regular season, the Chiefs semifinal triumph to get back to a Super Rugby final for the first time since 2013 perhaps best exemplified a key trait that’s going to have them have hosting rights for the title match – they can, and often will, beat you in multiple ways. 

Against the Brumbies, Australia’s last remaining club in the fight for a title, that victory came by way of a knock-down, drag-out 19-6 war the Hamiltonians only truly had in the bag in the dying embers of the match. 

Up 6-3 at halftime, as the Brumbies’ Noah Lolesio answered two penalty kicks from Chiefs and All Blacks standout Damian McKenzie, McKenzie’s boot – critical all season and a key feature of Chiefs victories following his return from a year of playing in Japan – once again was decisive. 

The 28-year-old was 5-for-5 kicking on a night where points were difficult to come by, with his most critical moment coming when he launched a penalty goal from the halfway line in the 72nd minute to up a skinny 9-6 lead to 12-6, where a late try alone wouldn’t get the Aussies in front. 

With that momentum behind them, and the Brumbies pushing for last-gasp points, the Chiefs finished the job, as McKenzie helped set up a Brodie Retallick try – and kicked through the conversion for emphasis – in the 79th minute, sending the Chiefs through and the Brumbies back home, extending New Zealand’s unblemished record when hosting Australian teams in the semifinals. 

The Brumbies’ offensive struggles, just a week after pushing for five tries in a hectic quarterfinal win over the Hurricanes, were exacerbated, both by the fact that the New Zealanders won the possession battle (54% to 46%), and McKenzie was a maestro with his foot, using it to pull the strings throughout the match and help his team keep a firm grip on the game’s pace. 

Still, credit also must be given to the Brumbies for being Australia’s shining light in a down period for the country’s club teams in Super Rugby. 

No team from the Land Down Under has advanced further in the playoffs in the competition than the Brumbies, who still seek, along with the rest of its representatives in the league, to break a title drought that’s been ongoing since the 2014 season. 

A date with the juggernaut Crusaders awaits for the Chiefs, but in a season of setting standards and breaking barriers for coach Clayton McMillan and his men, they’ve earned the right to be the next in line to challenge for the crown. 

And, in front of home support at the FMG Stadium Waikato next weekend, meaning they don’t have to do the near-impossible of beating the Crusaders in the playoffs in Christchurch, could it finally be the year the Chiefs return to the top of the pile?