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The Gallagher Chiefs have suffered their second loss of the season, going down to the unbeaten Crusaders 31-24 in a thrilling top of the table contest at ANZ Stadium in Suva, Fiji.

Despite holding a four-point halftime lead, and outscoring the Crusaders four tries to three, the Gallagher Chiefs were unable to hang on as the Crusaders finished strongly to claim the four competition points and extend their lead at the top of the Super Rugby standings.

The match began at a rapid pace with several long passages of play, before back to back Crusaders penalties saw them take an early lead with three points from the boot of Richie Mo’unga.

Some good kick chase pressure then caught the Gallagher Chiefs offside and Mo’unga made no mistake with another simple shot at goal for a 6-0 lead after the opening 15 minutes.

After slowly building momentum the Gallagher Chiefs then broke clear for a superb opening try. Aaron Cruden burst through a gap, thanks to a nice inside pass from Anton Lienert-Brown, and drew the fullback with a wide pass to Tim Nanai-Williams who finished well in the right-hand corner.

Just minutes later the Gallagher Chiefs were in again with an opportunistic try to wing James Lowe. Cruden found space with a well-placed left foot clearing kick and a wicked bounce allowed Lowe to pressure the defence before kicking ahead and diving on the loose ball.

The double strike gave the Gallagher Chiefs a four-point lead but that didn’t last long as the Crusaders hit back quickly with their first try of the evening. Centre Jack Goodhue made a break up the middle before popping a pass off the ground for Heiden Bedwell-Curtis to race clear and score.

Damian McKenzie then sparked the Gallagher Chiefs onto attack once more and a few phases later prop Kane Hames crashed his way over the line for the fourth try in a frantic ten minutes of action.

As halftime approached the Crusaders broke out from inside their own half and went desperately close to getting their second try. The Gallagher Chiefs initially scrambled well on defence to keep them out and then won a free kick off a Crusaders scrum which allowed them to clear to touch and go into the break 17-13 in front.

The halftime lead only lasted five minutes as the Crusaders struck early. Mo’unga launched a counter attack, reading a Cruden chip kick before sending the ball out wide, and a sweeping movement from their own 22 ended in a dazzling try to fullback David Havili.

Some good continuity with ball in hand saw the Gallagher Chiefs work their way into the Crusaders half, eventually winning a penalty but Cruden’s kick to retake the lead drifted wide.

Just before the 60-minute mark a brilliant long range attack from the Crusaders saw them extend their lead. It was Mo’unga again to the fore, making a clean break up the middle with replacement hooker Ben Funnell on hand to pick up and score a crucial try.

Mo’unga continued his impressive night by slotting the sideline conversion and opening up an eight-point gap.

Errors began to creep into the Gallagher Chiefs game in the final quarter as they tried to work their way back, and a lift in intensity on defence from the Crusaders kept them pinned in their own half.

Three more points from Mo’unga with just over 10 minutes remaining extended the lead to 11 before the Gallagher Chiefs finally sprung into life again. From the back of a five metre scrum Cruden worked his way into space to score handy to the posts with McKenzie adding the extras for their first points of the second half.

A fourth Mo’unga penalty pushed the Crusaders’ lead out to seven but the Gallagher Chiefs swiftly moved back downfield for one last crack. However, consecutive lineouts were disrupted and possession was lost with the Chiefs having to settle with just a losing bonus point to show from their trip to Fiji.

Gallagher Chiefs 24 (Tim Nanai-Williams, James Lowe, Kane Hames, Aaron Cruden tries; Cruden con, Damian McKenzie con) Crusaders 31 (Heiden Bedwell-Curtis, David Havili, Ben Funnell tries; Richie Mo’unga 2 cons, 4 pens) HT: 17-13.

Next up for the Gallagher Chiefs is a trip to Eden Park for a local derby against the Blues next Friday night (26 May, kick off 7.35pm).

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