The Hurricanes beat the Crusaders 31-22 in Wellington on Saturday to leave the Lions with an opportunity to finish at the top of the overall standings. JON CARDINELLI reports.
The result is hugely significant in the context of the coming playoffs. The Hurricanes will remain in Australasia to face the Brumbies in the quarter-finals. The Chiefs will travel to Cape Town to play the Stormers.
The result also means that the Lions will have an opportunity to finish at the top of the overall standings. The Crusaders sustained their first loss in 15 games on Saturday, and thus finished the regular season with 63 log points. The Lions (61) simply need to beat the Sharks in Durban to overtake the Crusaders. A win for Johan Ackermann's side will give them the chance to host a potential final.
Few would have picked the result in Wellington after what transpired before the game and in the first quarter. The Hurricanes suffered a couple of setbacks in the lead-up to kick-off when All Blacks flyhalf Beauden Barrett and centre Vince Aso were forced to withdraw, and this necessitated a reshuffle in the backline.
The hosts then began the contest in the worst possible fashion. Their scrum conceded an early penalty, and then their defence leaked a try. The Crusaders were 7-0 ahead inside three minutes.
The visitors continued to dominate the set pieces and collisions, and continued to find space out wide. In the 14th minute, Seta Tamanivalu claimed his second try of the game when the Crusaders exposed some poor Hurricanes defence on the right-hand side.
Shocking discipline let the Crusaders down, though. The Cantabrians conceded eight penalties in the first stanza alone.
The Hurricanes built some momentum and eventually scored through Jordie Barrett. At half-time, the Crusaders held a narrow 12-7 lead.
Beauden Barrett's replacement, Otere Black, threw the pass that set Jordie Barrett up for a try in the first half. The Hurricanes flyhalf found Julian Savea with a kick-pass in the 45th minute.
Savea beat the defender in the air to knock the ball back on the Hurricanes' side. The All Blacks winger then collected the loose ball to cross the line for a simple try. Barrett converted to steer the Hurricanes into the lead for the first time.
That piece of good work was undone moments later, however, when the Hurricanes conceded a penalty at the other end of the park. Richie Mo'unga made no mistake, and the Crusaders edged ahead 15-14.
The Crusaders did well to control possession and territory thereafter. Israel Dagg scored from a 5m scrum, and Mo'unga's conversion gave the visitors an eight-point advantage.
But the Hurricanes refused to give up. Wes Goosen scored four minutes later, and Barrett's ensuing touchline conversion reduced the deficit to a single point.
The hosts continued to apply the pressure and eventually breached the Crusaders defence. Vaea Fifita scored in the left-hand corner and Barrett slotted another conversion from the touchline to give his side a six-point lead with 15 minutes remaining.
The Crusaders threw everything at the Hurricanes defence in those final minutes. The Hurricanes dominated the collisions and breakdowns in that period to kill the Crusaders' momentum.
Barrett then slotted a late penalty to clinch the result and finish the match with a personal tally of 16 points.
Hurricanes – Tries: Jordie Barrett, Julian Savea, Wes Goosen, Vaea Fifita. Conversion: Barrett (4). Penalty: Barrett.
Crusaders – Tries: Seta Tamanivalu (2), Israel Dagg. Conversions: Richie Mo'unga (2). Penalty: Mo'unga.
Hurricanes – 15 Nehe Milner-Skudder, 14 Wes Goosen, 13 Jordie Barrett, 12 Ngani Laumape, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Otere Black, 9 TJ Perenara (c), 8 Brad Shields, 7 Ardie Savea, 6 Vaea Fifita, 5 Sam Lousi, 4 Mark Abbott, 3 Jeff Toomaga-Allen, 2 Ricky Riccitelli, 1 Ben May.
Subs: 16 James O'Reilly, 17 Chris Eves, 18 Loni Uhila, 19 Reed Prinsep, 20 Callum Gibbins, 21 Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, 22 TBC, 23 Cory Jane.
Crusaders – 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Seta Tamanivalu, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 David Havili, 11 George Bridge, 10 Richie Mo'unga, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Matt Todd (c), 6 Jordan Taufua, 5 Scott Barrett, 4 Luke Romano, 3 Michael Alaalatoa, 2 Ben Funnell, 1 Wyatt Crockett.
Subs: 16 Andrew Makalio, 17 Tim Perry, 18 Oliver Jager, 19 Sam Whitelock, 20 Jed Brown, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 Mitchell Hunt, 23 Sean Wainui.
Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images