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The flanker, who has not played this season after picking up a stress fracture in his foot, entered the fray in the 50th minute and despite having a hand in a try was understandably subdued in a match which was big on endeavour but littered with errors despite the perfect conditions.
The Crusaders on the back foot for much of the match, used their counter-attacking prowess to score four tries, netting a valuable bonus point in the process, while the Chiefs, who caused their opposites plenty of problems at the breakdown could only manage a solitary try to winger Lelia Masaga.
Poor handling, turnovers and misplaced passes meant the match lacked quality but it was keenly contested to the end which made for compelling viewing.
The Crusaders, adept at making the most of limited opportunities, used the Hawke's Bay combination of Isarael Dagg and Zac Guildford to good effect and the pair fashioned two of their side's tries.
The Chiefs were dealt a cruel blow in the opening minute when openside flanker Tanerau Latimer collided with the granite head of Crusaders prop Owen Franks. The five-test All Black collected a sickening blow to his cheek and lay dazed and confused as play continued around him.
He was eventually helped from the field to be replaced by Scott Waldrom who had expressed his dissatisfaction during the week at being left out of the staring lineup. For Franks, it was his second knockout blow his head has landed in successive weeks after the Bulls' Flip Van Der Merwe suffered a similar fate in Timaru last week.
The Crusaders took the lead in the seventh minute after the Dagg-Guildford partnership combined to send centre Robbie Fruean over, but the Chiefs were back on level terms four minutes later, when Isaac Ross, playing against his former side, released Masaga whose dancing feet left would-be tacklers clutching at air.
With the Chiefs in the ascendancy and looking threatening, a loose pass from first five-eighth Mike Delany was scooped up by Sean Maitland who showed his pace to outstrip the defence from 55m out and notch his eighth try of the Super 15 season.
Delany kept the Chiefs close with two penalties as the hosts went to the break trailing 17-13.
There was no let up intensity in the second half, with the Chiefs again making most of the running early on but the Bay boys interlinked again to send Andy Ellis, who came on at the same time as McCaw, over for what would prove to be the match-winning try 12 minutes after the restart.
They withstood determined Chiefs pressure in the second half, and captain Liam Messam showed his frustration at their inability to take their chances to retaliate to some niggle from Crusaders hooker Corey Flynn with a punch which was missed by the referee but is sure to lead to a date with the judiciary.
Ellis, who looked sharp in his outing, created the final try after a dart but McCaw looked to have knocked on his pass that landed gratefully in the arms of replacement lock Luke Romano who crossed under the posts to secure the bonus point try.
Crusaders 34 (Robbie Fruean, Sean Maitland, Andy Ellis, Luke Romano tries; Matt Berquist 4 con, 2 pen) Chiefs 16 (Lelia Masaga try; Mike Delany con, 3 pen). Halftime: 17-13.