The Crusaders have one hand on the Super Rugby Aotearoa title after a bounce-back win in Hamilton, as yet another controversial refereeing call thwarted the Chiefs’ chances.

The three-time defending Super Rugby champs marched to a 32-19 bonus-point win at FMG Stadium Waikato on Saturday night, in a five-tries-to-one victory that now puts them seven points clear of the Blues with two games to play, and was a fitting celebration for Sam Whitelock’s 150th match for the franchise.

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On the other side of the coin, it was a miserable way for Aaron Cruden to mark his 100th game for the Chiefs, as his side, playing for nothing but pride, notched up their eighth successive loss on this horror streak.

Almost unbelievably, considering their already remarkable luckless run with the referees, the Chiefs copped a shocking call on the Crusaders’ fourth try of the night, to Sevu Reece in the 61st minute, which sent them on their road to defeat.

Trailing just 20-19 as Damian McKenzie’s accurate, and Richie Mo’unga’s not so accurate, boots kept the teams tight, the hosts looked to have survived a close one, as Will Jordan’s inside ball to Quinten Strange was dropped forward, before Reece swept to score.

Referee Ben O’Keeffe went to TMO Glenn Newman to check the direction of Strange’s drop and while the ball ended up behind the replacement lock, his momentum had taken him past the ball and it seemingly clearly travelled toward the Chiefs’ line.

Not so for O’Keeffe, though, who to the bemusement of all 15,082 at the ground, ruled ‘try’. It proved a massive turning point in the contest, with the Crusaders, off yet another strong scrum, going in again five minutes later thanks to sharp Mo’unga work putting away Leicester Fainga’anuku.

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The Crusaders certainly deserved their victory, but that big moment certainly helped them on their way, after the hosts fought back from an early 12-0 deficit.

Signs may have been ominous when McKenzie missed an early penalty attempt from in front and the visitors didn’t waste any time in punishing that, opening the scoring in the seventh minute through a rampaging Tom Sanders, with slick quick hands putting the former Chief away down the left touch and bowling over McKenzie to plant down.

After Jordan strolled over in the 14th minute after a massive buildup and plenty of nice offloads, the Crusaders had enjoyed a whopping 90 per cent possession and had made only five tackles to the Chiefs’ 47. Down a dozen, the hosts were then struck a further blow just minutes later, as, already against the peerless red and blacks’ scrum, prop Reuben O’Neill hobbled off.

A 22nd minute burrow over from Lachlan Boshier – his fourth try in his last four outings – was reward for some possession and position, and a McKenzie penalty then brought the Chiefs back within two points.

However, with the Chiefs guilty of kicking away too much ball, basic errors and forcing their hand too much, the Crusaders came right back into their own in the final stages over the half.

It culminated in the worst possible outcome for the Chiefs, as Shaun Stevenson ended a miserable 40 minutes on return to the side with a yellow card for a deliberate knock down – a seemingly harsh, but technically correct call – and from a 10-metre lineout captain Codie Taylor flopped in off the powerful rolling maul to make it 17-10 at halftime.

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The Chiefs managed to stay otherwise unscathed in their time with 14, and the third quarter became a shootout between McKenzie (three) and Mo’unga (one) off the tee, as the home side held in it at 20-19.

AT A GLANCE: Crusaders 32 (Tom Sanders, Will Jordan, Codie Taylor, Sevu Reece, Leicester Fainga’anuku tries; Richie Mo’unga 2 con, pen) Chiefs 19 (Lachlan Boshier try; Damian McKenzie con, 4 pen). HT: 17-10

Thanks to stuff.co.nz for the match report