Flyhalf Richie Mounga rescued the Crusaders from two yellow cards, kicking 14 points in a 24-13 win over the Chiefs in the Super Rugby Aotearoa final in Christchurch on Saturday.
Keeping record: The Crusaders, who won the inaugural 2020 Aotearoa title by virtue of having finished top of the log, defended their title in Christchurch by winning the competition’s first final.
This adds two trophies to a cabinet already stacked with 10 Super Rugby championships during the 24 completed seasons of that competition between 1996 and 2019.
The Crusaders were three-time champions between 2017 and 2019, and successive Aotearoa titles has extended to five years their current run of dominance after experiencing a Super Rugby drought between 2008 and 2016.
The result also avenged a 26-25 loss against the Chiefs in round eight as the Waikato side recovered from a run of 11 straight losses (the last of which was a 39-17 reverse against the Crusaders in round three) to streak to five wins before fielding a second-string team that ended the league phase of the competition with a dead-rubber loss against the Blues last week.
Gameflow: The Crusaders saddled a stable scrum and power-runner Leicester Faingaanuku to ride Sevu Reece and Will Jordan to an early lead as the Chiefs missed almost 30% of their tackle attempts in the first quarter.
But the roles reversed soon after as Damian McKenzie pushed back, kicking a penalty and converting his try from a 13-man lineout to keep the Chiefs within one strike at the break (15-10).
In what was a manifestation of a rising penalty count against the Crusaders, Codie Taylor earned a yellow card in the third quarter for clattering into McKenzie in a high-ball contest.
While the hosts escaped the immediate cost as the Chiefs fullback missed his third crack at goal, the bill arrived minutes later when Reece was yellow-carded for a high tackle.
A notable development of the final was the ability of the Crusaders tight five to stand up to a Chiefs scrum that had dominated all comers during a five-win streak.
Denied the platform to launch, the Chiefs saw salvation in the two-man advantage, but they choked on the opportunity as a composed Mounga made a clutch escape on kick receipt to score a drop goal and penalty before the Crusaders were restored to a full complement of players.
And he capped the final 40 to clinch the win with a penalty that equalled what the Chiefs had mustered in the second half.
Magic Mounga: The Crusaders and All Blacks pivot was exceptional in the decider, kicking three penalties, one conversion and a drop goal.
Mounga made two clean breaks and beat four defenders on six runs for 90 metres, but it was his game management and tactical contributions in a final featuring 50 kicks that played a vital role in limiting the Chiefs to three points in the second half.
Run of play: An Ethan Blackadder interception snuffed out a promising start from the Chiefs and Sevu Reece compounded the visitors’ disappointment when he ran on to a laser pass from Richie Mounga and then ran over Damian McKenzie to dot down on the tryline (7-0).
Gargantuan Crusaders centre Leicester Fainga’anuku trucked Brad Weber and while the Chiefs captain was off for a concussion test, McKenzie extended his lead as the leading points-scorer in the competition with a successful penalty that made it 7-3 after 15 minutes.
Less than a minute later, another emphatic carry from Fainga’anuku set up David Havili for a grubber that Will Jordan collected for the try (12-3).
But the first quarter had more in store for the crowd of roughly 17,000 in attendance. The Chiefs drove an attacking 12-plus-1 lineout before the ball came out to Alex Nankivell and the centre spat out a perfect offload for McKenzie to win the race to the corner, converting from the touchline to make it a two-point game.
An unexpected ceasefire followed, ended by Mounga flicking the uprights neon-green with a penalty and McKenzie hooked his attempted reply to see the Crusaders trot off with a 15-10 lead at halftime.
The Chiefs fullback let the hosts off the hook again at the start of the second half. McKenzie’s sights didn’t improve after he was tipped by Codie Taylor while fielding a high ball and crashed to earth – the hooker was sin-binned and the fullback missed from 40m.
But Reece followed Taylor to the naughty chair minutes later for a high hit on Chase Tiatia and this time McKenzie banked the three points to cut the Crusaders’ lead to 15-13 at the end of the third quarter.
The Chiefs squandered the two-man advantage as an overzealous chase of a McKenzie cross-kick deep into Crusaders territory overshot Mounga and the flyhalf streaked up the left touchline to spark a breakout, which he ended with a drop goal.
Mounga then landed another telling blow midway through the fourth quarter, converting a penalty to bring to six the number of points conceded by the Chiefs during Taylor and Reece’s time in the sin bin.
And when he added three more with five minutes to go, the Crusaders had successfully weathered the Chiefs’ best punches and defended their title as Super Rugby Aotearoa champions.