Of all the top-ranked players to leave our shores for overseas riches since last season, former Chiefs first-five Aaron Cruden may be hardest to replace.

Watching Damian McKenzie's inept display in the 10 jersey for the Chiefs in their 45-23 defeat to the defending champion Crusaders in Christchurch on Saturday showed how much Cruden is missed.

It also opened a key discussion. Why would you move the world's best attacking fullback in McKenzie away from the open spaces where he is so destructive with ball in hand to the key pivot role where there is no time for second-guessing yourself?

Against the Crusaders McKenzie threw two poor passes that directly led to tries by the Crusaders and fluffed his lines on several other occasions. It could be the worst positional switch since the All Blacks decided Christian Cullen could play centre.


On Friday night the Blues came close to beating the Highlanders in Dunedin, with Bryn Gatland looking every inch a future All Blacks first-five in waiting. Only Waikato and the Chiefs know why they did not sign the former Hamilton Boys' High School star to a long-term contract. Instead, the son of Waikato centenarian hooker Warren Gatland was allowed to wander north to North Harbour and the Blues.

It is not quite the sporting version of record companies turning down The Beatles but Gatland should be playing in a Chiefs jersey.

The loss to the Crusaders on Saturday was nowhere near as one-sided as the score indicates, with the Chiefs clawing their way back from 19-3 down after 31 minutes to trail 19-17 at the halftime break.

The catalyst for the comeback was an extraordinary 48m run to the try line by inspirational captain Sam Cane, including an outrageous dummy that fooled the defence. Cane was easily the dominant figure among the top-class loose forwards on display, making his customary tackles and claiming the hard yards breaking around the edge of the rucks.

His performance was one for the ages considering it was just game one in a season that will finish for Cane playing for the All Blacks against Italy on November 24. It was apt it came in the city where Richie McCaw made his name, with Cane now creating his own legacy in the 7 jersey.

The game turned on a decision by referee Ben O'Keeffe to award a penalty try to the Crusaders and send Lachlan Boshier to the sin bin with the game in the balance at 26-23 to the Crusaders with 10 minutes to play.

In making a try-saving tackle that connected with Ryan Crotty's chest and the ball there was minimal contact with the jaw of Crotty. Perhaps a penalty yes but O'Keefe and his TMO made a decision that ultimately cost the Chiefs the game.

Cane said his team was excited to take on the Crusaders first up in the new Super Rugby campaign. There is plenty to take from the game ahead of the Blues at Eden Park on Friday.

"We definitely got beaten to the punch in the first 20 but to our credit, we actually clawed our way back really well in that second 20 of the first half. In this Super Rugby you have to be switched on for the whole game," Cane said.

"There were periods there around the 15 to 20 minutes to go mark when we were just not as accurate. We played a lot in the middle of the field and we got punished although the scoreboard does not reflect the battle that it was.

"The Crusaders were too good but we will be better for it."

For Bay of Plenty supporters, there was much to like about three Steamers starting the match in Cane, Nathan Harris and Aidan Ross, all former Tauranga Boys' First XV players, and another Steamer in Liam Polwart joining the fray from the bench.

Crusaders 45 (Matt Todd, Richie Mo'unga, Jordan Taufua, Sam Whitelock, penalty try, George Bridge, Manasa Mataele tries; Mo'unga 3 con; David Havili con) Chiefs 23 (Sam Cane, Solomon Alaimalo tries; Damian McKenzie 2 con, 3 pen). HT: 19-17