McKenzie stars as unbeaten Chiefs topple Crusaders

rugby29 April 2023 10:43| © AFP
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Damian McKenzie © Getty Images

Damian McKenzie's push for an All Blacks fly-half berth was amplified as his unbeaten Chiefs beat the Crusaders 34-24 in a pivotal Super Rugby Pacific match on Saturday.

McKenzie cemented his status as the most influential player in the competition as he kicked 19 points and set up two of his team's three tries in front of home supporters in Hamilton.

A ninth straight win equalled the Chiefs' record winning streak - set in 2012 when they won their first title - and propelled them eight points clear atop the standings.

Defending champions the Crusaders are fifth after their third defeat, including their second loss to the Chiefs, following a 21-point humbling in the opening round.

The visitors edged in front with nine minutes remaining through a penalty to Richie Mo'unga but the Chiefs powered home with two late tries to Shaun Stevenson and Tyrone Thompson.

Mo'unga, the incumbent All Blacks fly-half, was eclipsed by McKenzie, whose attacking form and game management this season was acknowledged by national coach Ian Foster this week.

Chiefs co-captain Sam Cane, who is likely to lead the All Blacks at this year's World Cup, said McKenzie's versatility and the try-scoring prowess of fullback Stevenson had been essential.

"It's not the first time they've done it this season, they've been outstanding for us," Cane said.

"Damian's ability to be in at 10 and then switch out to fullback, look, we're really pleased with how our outsides are going. They're going well."

McKenzie has 40 test caps but nearly half of them have been off the reserves bench and his starts have been primarily at fullback.

Having stated his desire to play fly-half, the 28-year-old is applying pressure on Mo'unga and veteran Blues playmaker Beauden Barrett to wear New Zealand's No 10 jersey when the World Cup starts in France in September.

Despite struggling for possession in the first half, the Chiefs led 12-7 at the break thanks to four McKenzie penalty goals.

He and Stevenson combined to put lock Brodie Retallick over soon after the interval before the Crusaders, with nine All Blacks in their starting line-up, fought back through a penalty try and a try to fullback Fergus Burke.

Crusaders captain Scott Barrett conceded his side had failed to reduce McKenzie's influence.

"The Chiefs have some serious ball-carriers and some threats out the back," he said.

"It was a huge part of our plan to stop their momentum and put pressure on Damian but it wasn't to be tonight."