The Crusaders beat the Highlanders 34-8 on Saturday to clinch the Kiwi conference title and strengthen their claim for a home semi-final. JON CARDINELLI reports.
In typical Crusaders fashion, they saved one of their finest performances for last. The Crusaders scored four tries against the Highlanders in Christchurch, and the resultant five log points should be enough to earn them a place in the top two.
The quality of the performance was a statement in itself: the Crusaders, in this sort of form, are serious contenders for the Super Rugby title. Unless the Sharks smash the Stormers at Newlands, the Crusaders will host a semi-final in Christchurch in two weeks' time.
The Sharks face a near impossible task. They need to beat the Stormers by a 35-point margin, and score four tries in the process.
This seems unlikely, given they don't boast the best try-scoring record, and have only obtained the four-try bonus point on two occasions this season. The Sharks are also up against a resurgent Stormers side that hasn't conceded a point in their last two matches at Newlands.
It's more likely that the Sharks will face the Highlanders in Durban in the qualifying play-off next week. The Sharks will fancy their chances in that encounter. The Highlanders lacked intensity in the clash with the Crusaders, and the long journey to Durban may also impact on their next performance.
But take nothing away from the Crusaders, they were brutally efficient. They applied terrific breakdown pressure, and the Highlanders were always on the back foot.
Goal-kicker Dan Carter converted the early pressure into points. Once the Crusaders had established a commanding 12-3 lead, they began to turn down the shot for goal, instead opting for a kick to the corner.
That period before and after half-time shaped the final result. The Crusaders set the lineout maul, and scored through Matt Todd right before the break. Todd grabbed his second after half-time in similar fashion, and suddenly the hosts were out to a 24-3 lead.
The Crusaders backs came into the game as the contest progressed. Colin Slade caused the Highlanders defence problems, as did Israel Dagg. Nemani Nadolo rounded off an attacking movement to hand the Crusaders their third.
There was a period of play thereafter where the Highlanders rallied. And yet, it always seemed likely that the Crusaders would bank that all-important fourth try.
Again, it was the Crusaders lineout that proved the attacking platform of choice. The maul was set, and on this occasion, replacement hooker Corey Flynn was the man who dotted the ball beyond the tryline.
Carter failed to convert, and in general didn't have the best night with the boot. However, it's a shortcoming that didn't cost the Crusaders in this game, and is not likely to cost them second place on the overall log.
Crusaders – Tries: Matt Todd (2), Nemani Nadolo, Corey Flynn. Conversion: Dan Carter. Penalties: Carter (4).
Highlanders – Try: Richard Buckman. Penalty: Hayden Parker.
Crusaders – 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Kieron Fonotia, 13 Ryan Crotty, 12 Dan Carter, 11 Nemani Nadolo, 10 Colin Slade, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Kieran Read (c), 7 Matt Todd, 6 Jordan Taufua, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Dominic Bird, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Ben Funnell, 1 Wyatt Crockett.
Subs: 16 Corey Flynn, 17 Joe Moody, 18 Nepo Laulala, 19 Jimmy Tupou, 20 Luke Whitelock, 21 Willi Heinz, 22 Tom Taylor, 23 Johnny McNicholl.
Highlanders – 15 Trent Renata, 14 Richard Buckman, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Shaun Treeby, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Hayden Parker, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu (c), 7 Shane Christie, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Tom Franklin, 3 Chris King, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Kane Hames.
Subs: 16 Ged Robinson, 17 Matias Diaz, 18 JP Koen, 19 Josh Bekhuis, 20 Gareth Evans, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Lima Sopoaga, 23 Phil Burleigh.
Photo: Martin Hunter/Getty Images