The Crusaders produced a superior physical and tactical performance to hammer the Highlanders 17-0 in a weather-afflicted quarter-final in Christchurch on Saturday, reports JON CARDINELLI.
The result on Saturday marked the Crusaders' 15th win of the season, as well as their third-straight victory over the Highlanders in 2017. Scott Robertson's side will have the opportunity to add a 16th win to their tally next week when they host one of the Chiefs or the Stormers – who will meet in a quarter-final at Newlands on Saturday evening.
History beckons for this Crusaders team. They could become the first Super Rugby side to win 16 games in a single season. And if they manage to tick that box, they will advance to the final and have the chance to win their first title since 2008.
Robertson's charges made a statement in a weather-afflicted clash against the Highlanders on Saturday. Many felt that the driving rain and heavy underfoot conditions would suit the Highlanders better than the free-running Crusaders. On the night, however, the Crusaders out-muscled and out-kicked the most pragmatic side in the tournament.
The Crusaders dominated the scrums and lineouts. The pressure applied by the Crusaders forwards at the breakdown told on the Highlanders halfbacks. Neither Aaron Smith nor Lima Sopoaga were able to implement the Highlanders' kicking game to any telling effect.
Five minutes into the game, Highlanders flank Liam Squire was shown a yellow card for a no-arms tackle on Crusaders flyhalf Richie Mo'unga. The hosts controlled territory and possession during Squire's absence, but only managed to score three points.
Mo'unga kicked well out of hand and the Crusaders did well to keep the Highlanders pinned deep in their own half. Despite two misses at goal by Mo'unga, the hosts went to the break with a commanding 17-0 lead.
The Highlanders defence was under pressure for much of the first stanza. The visitors stood firm for 15 phases before Kieran Read was awarded a try in the 31st minute.
The Crusaders looked to have scored their second via a rolling maul shortly before half-time. On that occasion, however, the officials ruled that the grounding of the ball was inconclusive.
The hosts continued to push for a crucial score before the break. A direct approach proved effective as the Highlanders defence eventually relented and hooker Codie Taylor was credited with the try.
The Highlanders were forced to play catch-up rugby after the break. The visitors battled to wear down the Crusaders' defence. They let themselves down with their poor handling in wet conditions.
The Highlanders had a great opportunity to get back into the game into the 65th minute when they set up a lineout deep in opposition territory. Sam Whitelock won the ball against the throw, though, and gave his team the chance to exit the danger zone.
Mo'unga had an opportunity to inflict further pain on the visitors when he lined up a penalty in the 70th minute. For the third time in the evening, the flyhalf's attempt drifted wide.
The Highlanders, the 2015 champions, should be disappointed with their zero-point return in this playoff. They were completely outplayed, though, and the scoreline would have been nine points greater, had Mo'unga been more accurate in front of goal.
Crusaders – Tries: Kieran Read, Codie Taylor. Conversions: Richie Mo'unga (2). Penalty: Mo'unga.
Crusaders – 15 David Havili, 14 Israel Dagg, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 Seta Tamanivalu, 10 Richie Mo'unga, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Matt Todd, 6 Jordan Taufua, 5 Sam Whitelock (c), 4 Scott Barrett, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Joe Moody.
Subs: 16 Ben Funnell, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Mike Alaalatoa, 19 Luke Romano, 20 Pete Samu, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 Mitchell Hunt, 23 George Bridge.
Highlanders – 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Rob Thompson, 11 Richard Buckman, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Luke Whiteock, 7 James Lentjes, 6 Liam Squire, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Jackson Hemopo, 3 Siate Tokolahi, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown.
Subs: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Aki Seiuli, 18 Siosuia Halanukonuka, 19 Alex Ainley, 20 Gareth Evans, 21 Elliot Dixon, 22 Kayne Hammington, 23 Marty Banks.
Photo: Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images