The Crusaders beat the Highlanders 45-22 in Christchurch to secure the New Zealand conference title as well as first place in the overall standings. JON CARDINELLI reports.
The Crusaders will not be caught. The win at ‘Wyatt Crockett Stadium’ on Friday marked their 11th successive victory. More importantly, it earned them an unassailable lead at the top of the overall standings.
The Crusaders have won the New Zealand conference for the second year in a row. They will host a quarter-final in two weeks’ time, and possibly a semi-final and final thereafter.
There was a lot of pre-match hype around Crockett’s milestone. The local stadium was renamed – at least for the duration of the game – in the All Blacks and Crusaders prop’s honour. On Friday, Crockett became the first player in history to win 200 Super Rugby caps.
George Bridge scored in the corner to give the hosts an early lead. Six minutes into the contest, Joe Moody broke down with an injury and Crockett was deployed from the bench.
The veteran contributed almost immediately when the Crusaders won a scrum penalty under their own posts. David Havili rounded off an attacking move thereafter and Richie Mo’unga converted to extend the hosts’ lead to 12 points.
The Highlanders hit back, first through prop Tyrel Lomax, and then through fullback Ben Smith. The latter was a product of a turnover deep in the visitors’ half. Lima Sopoaga added the extras to leave the Highlanders trailing by a single point.
The Crusaders scored through Scott Barrett after the half-time hooter, though, and Mo’unga’s conversion saw the hosts heading to the sheds with a significant 25-17 lead.
Mo’unga raced away from the defence to put the Crusaders in command after the break. The Highlanders attempted to chase the game thereafter, but there was simply too much ground for them to make up.
Mo’unga threw a long pass in the 69th minute to find Bridge out wide. The wing rounded the defence to claim his second try of the evening.
Mo’unga added the conversion and a subsequent penalty goal to end the game with a personal haul of 25 points.
The Crusaders may well decide to rest a few key players ahead of the knockout phase. The Highlanders, however, will need to pick up some points in their next fixture against the Rebels to improve their playoff situation.
Crusaders – Tries: George Bridge (2), David Havili, Scott Barrett, Richie Mo’unga. Conversion: Mo’unga (4). Penalties: Mo’unga (4).
Highlanders – Tries: Tyrel Lomax, Ben Smith, Waisake Naholo. Conversions: Lima Sopoaga (2). Penalty: Sopoaga.
Crusaders – 15 David Havili, 14 Seta Tamanivalu, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 George Bridge, 10 Richie Mo’unga, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Matt Todd, 6 Heiden Bedwell-Curtis, 5 Sam Whitelock (c), 4 Scott Barrett, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Andrew Makalio, 1 Joe Moody.
Subs: 16 Codie Taylor, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Michael Alaalatoa, 19 Quinten Strange, 20 Jordan Taufua, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 Mitchell Hunt, 23 Manasa Mataele.
Highlanders – 15 Ben Smith (co-c), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Rob Thompson, 12 Tei Walden, 11 Richard Buckman, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 James Lentjes, 6 Liam Squire, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Pari Pari Parkinson, 3 Tyrel Lomax, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Aki Seiuli.
Subs: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Daniel Lienert-Brown, 18 Millar, 19 Jackson Hemopo, 20 Shannon Frizell, 21 Elliot Dixon, 22 Kayne Hammington, 23 Josh Ioane.
Photo: Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images