Crusaders claim Super Rugby Aotearoa title

Author
Christopher Reive, NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Sun, 9 Aug 2020, 5:36PM
Richie Mo'unga of the Crusaders runs in to score a try. Photo / Getty
Richie Mo'unga of the Crusaders runs in to score a try. Photo / Getty

Crusaders claim Super Rugby Aotearoa title

Author
Christopher Reive, NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Sun, 9 Aug 2020, 5:36PM

Crusaders 32
Highlanders 22

Make it four from four for Scott Robertson's Crusaders.

Since Robertson took over the head coaching role at the club, the Crusaders have been the benchmark of Super Rugby and in the New Zealand-only incarnation, Super Rugby Aotearoa, it wasn't any different.

With a 32-22 win over the Highlanders in Christchurch this afternoon, the Crusaders clinched the title with a week to spare.

In four seasons under Robertson's rule, including the six rounds of the pre-Covid-19 Super Rugby season, the Crusaders have won 59 of 69 matches with just seven losses.

From the early days of the competition, Super Rugby Aotearoa looked like it was the Crusaders' to lose. The side went six rounds before dropping their first and only match of the competition. By that point the second-placed Blues had already dropped two games.

However, the Crusaders didn't make things easy on themselves. Throughout the season they had made a habit of getting behind in games only to come storming home in the final quarter of their games. Leading into the game against the Highlanders, 39 per cent of the Crusaders' points this season had been scored in that late period.

Such was the case against the Highlanders, with the Crusaders running in three tries inside the final 20 minutes to secure the title.

The Highlanders couldn't have hoped for a better start in Christchurch. Kicking to the Crusaders to begin the match, the visitors found themselves with the first opportunity of the game just moments later. After forcing a turnover at one of the first breakdowns of the game, the Highlanders crashed over from close range through Shannon Frizell.

With a seven-point lead inside five minutes, the Highlanders were going to make the Crusaders work for the right to lift the competition trophy with a week remaining in the competition.

It took a bit of luck for the Crusaders to find their way into the match, but they eventually did after frantic period of ball movement which featured netball passes and saw the ball hit the deck a few times, halfback Bryn Hall showed his vison when he sent Sevu Reece away down the right wing.

Hall's skip pass across the face of two teammates saw Reece scoot off with no defender in sight. He was tracked down, but after a few passes first five-eighth Richie Mo'unga went in under the posts.

While Reece's side of the park was profitable for the Crusaders then, it was exploited soon after. Inside the Highlanders 22m and looking to shift the ball, a tip on pass from Sam Whitelock was picked off by Highlanders left wing Jona Nareki, who went the length of the field to push the Highlanders back into the lead.

With the sides trading penalties to see the visitors lead 17-13 at the break, there was still plenty on the line in the second half.

Possession became a vital element of the contest in the second period. The Highlanders weren't always asking questions of the Crusaders' defence, but with more possession they were forcing the Crusaders to make tackles.

While not immediately paying off, holes soon opened up in the Crusaders defensive line and mistakes were starting to find their way into the game.

The Crusaders almost opened the scoring in the half through Hall, who was denied by a terrific defensive effort over the tryline by Highlanders wing Josh McKay to strip the ball away. McKay's efforts paid off at the other end in the 54th minute when Michael Collins was able to extend the lead with the Highlanders' third try of the game.

However, all season the Crusaders have made sure to remind their opponents that rugby is an 80-minute game and just as the clock clicked over past the 60-minute mark, something clicked for the hosts.

Running in two tries through left wing George Bridge within the space of three minutes, the Crusaders took their first lead of the game.

The Highlanders lost a man to the sin bin after Sio Tomkinson put an ugly hit on Crusaders prop Oli Jager – who was stretchered off the park – and the hosts took advantage of being a man up with a try to Braydon Ennor - to lock up another trophy.

Crusaders 32 (George Bridge 2, Richie Mo'unga, Braydon Ennor tries; Mo'unga 3 cons, 2 pens)
Highlanders 22 (Shannon Frizell, Jona Nareki, Michael Collins tries; Josh Ioane 2 cons, pen)
HT: 13-17