The Crusaders were crowned Super Rugby Aotearoa champions after clinching a 32-22 come-from-behind victory over the Highlanders in Christchurch on Sunday.
The result sees the Crusaders take an unassailable six-point lead at the summit of the Super Rugby Aotearoa standings, thus securing the title in grand fashion with one round of fixtures remaining.
The Crusaders were made to fight tooth and nail for the victory. The game was in the balance right until the death, and no small amount of composure was needed to secure the result. Wing George Bridge scored a brace of tries, while influential flyhalf Richie Mo’unga made a 17-point contribution via a try, two conversions and two penalties.
The possession was evenly split in the first half, but the Highlanders made better decisions with ball in hand, while the weight of expectation to the seal the title appeared to weigh the jittery Crusaders down. But with a massive momentum shift in the final quarter of the match, the Crusaders broke the self-imposed shackles to seize control of proceedings and their own fate in the only way they know how: by running the opposition off their feet.
In an exciting start to the game, Shannon Frizell opened the scoring as early as the second minute to put the Highlanders in the lead. Mo’unga’s self-converted try leveled matters again, but the Highlanders were zoned in and regained the lead with another converted try and a penalty.
The Crusaders would close the deficit but still went into the break trailing 17-13.
An upset win looked to be on the cards when the Highlanders edged further ahead after the restart, undoubtedly raising hope among Blues and Hurricanes fans that the title race would run until the final round of fixtures next week.
All those hopes were squashed in the last 20 minutes of the match, though, when the Crusaders scored 19 unanswered points to close out the game and draw the curtain on a title race they were always favourites to win.
Takina Te Kawa.
— Super Rugby (@SuperRugbyNZ) August 9, 2020
Crusaders – Tries: Richie Mo’unga, George Bridge (2), Braydon Ennor. Conversions: Mo’unga (3). Penalties: Mo’unga (2).
Highlanders – Tries: Shannon Frizell, Jonah Nareki, Michael Collins. Conversions: Josh Ioane (2). Penalty: Ioane.
Crusaders – 15 Will Jordan, 14 Sevu Reece, 13 Braydon Ennor, 12 Jack Goodhue, 11 George Bridge, 10 Richie Mo’unga, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Whetu Douglas, 7 Tom Christie, 6 Tom Sanders, 5 Quinten Strange, 4 Samuel Whitelock, 3 Michael Alaalatoa, 2 Codie Taylor (c), 1 Joe Moody.
Subs: 16 Andrew Makalio, 17 George Bower, 18 Oliver Jager, 19 Luke Romano, 20 Sione Havili, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 Brett Cameron, 23 Leicester Fainga’anuku.
Highlanders – 15 Mitch Hunt, 14 Josh McKay, 13 Michael Collins, 12 Sio Tomkinson, 11 Jona Nareki, 10 Josh Ioane, 9 Aaron Smith (cc), 8 Marino Mikaele-Tu’u, 7 Dillon Hunt, 6 Shannon Frizell, 5 Jack Whetton, 4 Pari Pari Parkinson, 3 Jeff Thwaites, 2 Ash Dixon (cc), 1 Ayden Johnstone.
Subs: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Daniel Lienert-Brown, 18 Siate Tokolahi, 19 Manaaki Selby-Rickit, 20 Teariki Ben-Nicholas, 21 Folau Fakatava, 22 Ngatugnane Punivai, 23 Jesse Parete.
Photo: Crusaders Rugby/Getty Images