Richie Mounga scored 28 points as the unbeaten Crusaders repelled the Blues for a 43-27 victory at Eden Park on Sunday.
Gameflow: Led by skipper Patrick Tuipulotu, the Blues launched a full-frontal assault in the first half, attacking the defending champions at the set piece to establish a beachhead deep in enemy territory. But the Crusaders kept their heads down, weathered the storm through resilient defence and denied the Blues from converting a sizeable advantage in possession and field position into points.
Having absorbed the Blues’ best punches, the Crusaders regrouped and began to advance behind the boot of flyhalf Richie Mounga. The lead changed hands three times in the first half before Mounga established a 12-point cushion in the third quarter and the Crusaders never looked back, despite a pair of tries from Blues replacement hooker Kurt Eklund.
Run of Play: Blues flyhalf Otere Black kicked an early penalty before Crusaders centre Jack Goodhue won the race to dot a deft Mounga grubber that put the visitors into a 7-3 lead after 11 minutes.
Flanker Blake Gibson scored at the start of the second quarter to put the Blues back in front (8-7) but Mounga reclaimed the lead with a penalty before hooker Codie Taylor converted a lineout drive for a 17-8 lead at the break.
Mounga added three more after the restart to create a 12-point lead that put the Blues into chase-mode. Eklund crashed over for a converted try, justifying the decision not to take the points from a kickable penalty. But the Crusaders refused to be drawn into a shootout and Mounga duly chipped three more penalties to take a 14-point lead into the final quarter.
Eklund sneaked in at the corner for his second try with 12 minutes to go, and then undid a great outing with a silly tip-tackle that led to the hooker being lined up and easily rounded by Mounga for a try.
A try from Blues No8 Hoskins Sotutu, converted by Harry Plummer, made it 36-27 after 73 minutes, but any hope of a Blues comeback was dashed when replacement tighthead prop Ofa Tu’ungafasi was yellow-carded for a dangerous cleanout on Crusaders captain Scott Barrett, and winger Sevu Reece finished a Crusaders breakout for the win.
Standout performer: Though Mounga took a minute to warm up to the contest, he eventually set the scoreboard on fire, scoring a great solo try, and kicking four conversions and five penalties.
Unsung hero: Codie Taylor continues to build on a powerful start to the season. The Crusaders hooker made splash plays on defence, blowing up runners around the fringes and tucking in over the ball to force a crucial turnover.
Battle of the beasts: The first half featured a gripping scrum duel as the Blues front row of Alex Hodgson, Luteru Tolai and Nepo Laulala shunted their rivals at one scrum before Joe Moody, Taylor and Michael Alaalatoa recovered to crumple the Blues and earn an exit penalty.
What does it all mean?: For the Crusaders, clinching this table-topping showdown served the dual purpose of handing the Blues their first loss of the season and pushing the reigning champs into a nine-point lead at the top of the Aotearoa standings. The Blues are second with a game in hand on the Crusaders.