The Crusaders broke a Super Rugby record with an extraordinary defensive performance to strangle the Chiefs and book a place in next weekend’s final.
The red-and-black juggernaut made a competition record 222 tackles in the 20-7 semi-final win in Christchurch to extend its perfect 27-27 home record in play-offs.
The Crusaders, who have reached their 16th final, will meet the winner of Saturday’s Blues-Brumbies semi at Eden Park.
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Scott Robertson’s side hung tough despite the loss of star flanker Pablo Matera, who was sent off by Australian referee Nic Berry in the first half.
Matera copped two yellow cards – the first for a ruck infringement after a string of penalties against his side, and the second for a high shot on Bryn Gatland.
“I think it’s a bit of an anomaly with a team penalty and an individual card,” Matera’s Argentina coach Michael Cheika said on Stan Sport.
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“He paid the ultimate price.”
All Blacks great Andrew Mehrtens went further than Cheika, who joked he was trying to get back in the good books of referees.
“I think it’s an absurdity,” Mehrtens said.
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“This offence in itself needs a yellow card and 10 minutes.”
Matera was in the thick of everything in his brief time on the park.
The Pumas powerhouse was also the recipient of a hit from Quinn Tupaea which attracted a yellow card despite Matera falling.
“I thought it didn’t deserve a card at all,” Mehrtens said.
“The process is wrong. They never looked at it in real speed. Matera was dropping, Tupaea had no time to change his height.”
Cheika will now be sweating on whether Matera receives further punishment from the judiciary.
“You hope they’ll make the smart choice,” the former Wallabies boss said.
As the tackle count suggests, the Chiefs had plenty of possession and opportunities to score more than the one try to prop Angus Ta’avao.
But their execution simply wasn’t good enough in frigid and windy conditions.
“That one really hurts. There’ll be a lot of regrets,” Chiefs co-captain Brad Weber said.
“It’s going to be tough to get over. Damn, we should have scored more points and probably won the game. The conditions were seriously tough. I don’t think I’ve played in a game quite like it.”
Crusaders No.8 Cullen Grace scored two tries to lift a home pack missing late scratching Sam Whitelock.
“I think behind however many tackles there was, there was a great effort,” Crusaders captain Scott Barrett said.
“You have to take your hats off to the Chiefs, they threw 120 per cent at us and I’m sure there’s going to be some sore boys in the next few days.
“We like a challenge. At times we were down to 14 men and we had to front. Finals footy is about defence and there were plenty of good efforts there.”
The Brumbies will start massive underdogs in the second semi against a Blues side steered by Beauden Barrett and riding a record winning streak.
But Cheika, a Super Rugby-winning coach with the Waratahs in 2014, wasn’t counting them out.
“If they’re in the right headspace they can do it.”
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