The Crusaders beat the Brumbies 37-24 in Canberra to give departing icons Richie McCaw and Dan Carter the perfect send-off. RYAN VREDE reports.
The significance of the result from the Brumbies' perspective is that they blew the chance to host a semi-final. But the Crusaders, inspired by the subplot of their legends' departure, were just too good. The fairytale finish wouldn't be denied and in Carter and McCaw, the latter who became the first man to win 100 Vodacom Super Rugby games and 100 Tests, there are no more deserving men in the game of a winning end to decorated Super Rugby careers.
The Crusaders will lament their inconsistency this season. They miss out on the play-offs despite showing on Saturday that, when playing at or close to the ceiling of their potential, they are a force. The Brumbies tried valiantly to enforce their will on their visitors – and this made for an excellent match – but just didn't have the goods to overcome a Crusaders side in this mood.
The match had a Test-like feel tactically, with the teams very well matched and able to deliver effective counters to the other's attacking ambition. The gainline battle in particular was immense, strike runners examining the competency of their defensive counterparts and those men more often than not showing themselves to be up for the challenge.
The Brumbies scored first, employing their lethal rolling maul, which is surely the competition's best, to unlock the Saders defence, David Pocock scoring and Christian Lealiifano adding the extras.
The Saders' response was superb, scoring through Nemani Nadolo four minutes later. The Saders winger has been a revelation this season and showed why he commands the level of respect he does by carrying the ball powerfully close to the touchline and exhibiting great agility to score in the corner.
Carter and Lealiifano traded penalties but the seven-time champions gradually wrestled the momentum from their hosts and deservedly went into the break with a commanding 21-10 lead. They achieved this through tries from Matt Todd and Nadolo, who shrugged off Robbie Coleman's tackle, took two defenders out of the game with a deft grubber, then out-sprinted Nic White to the ball. He is a freak and it's a great pity his freakishness won't have a platform for expression in the play-offs.
The Brumbies were second best for the bulk of the first half and needed to settle into their multi-phase pattern to keep alive their hope of hosting a semi-final. However, their cause was greatly undermined when Pocock failed a concussion test and didn't make it back on the field after half-time, before Jessie Mogg was yellow-carded a minute after the restart.
Carter struck a penalty to take his side 14 points ahead but when lock Sam Whitelock conceded a penalty and copped a yellow card for collapsing a maul, the Brumbies sensed a lifeline. From the infringement they set up a lineout and unstoppable maul which culminated in Jarrad Butler scoring. Lealiifano converted to bring the Saders back into their sights.
The Saders, however, absorbed a sustained period of pressure well and extended their lead to 10 points going into the final quarter. But the Brumbies refused to surrender, yet again going to the rolling maul and setting up Butler for his second try. Lealiifano's conversion created an almighty race to the line.
The Saders tapped into their energy reserves as the game neared its end, seemingly determined to give their icons a fitting send off. And it was ironic that they took a major step in that direction by giving the Brumbies a dose of their own medicine, forcing a penalty try through a rolling maul. Carter converted to restore a 10-point lead with seven minutes to play and then the world's greatest ever flyhalf sealed the result with a late penalty.
Brumbies – Tries: David Pocock, Jarrad Butler, penalty try. Conversions: Christian Lealiifano (3). Penalty: Lealiifano
Crusaders – Tries: Nemani Nadolo (2), Matt Todd, penalty try. Conversion: Dan Carter. Penalties: Carter (5).
Brumbies – 15 Jesse Mogg, 14 Henry Speight, 13 Tevita Kuridrani, 12 Robbie Coleman, 11 Joe Tomane, 10 Christian Lealiifano, 9 Nic White, 8 Ita Vaea, 7 David Pocock, 6 Scott Fardy, 5 Blake Enever, 4 Rory Arnold, 3 Ben Alexander, 2 Stephen Moore (c), 1 Scott Sio.
Subs: 16 Josh Mann-Rea, 17 Allan Alaalatoa, 18 Ruan Smith, 19 Jordan Smiler, 20 Jarrad Butler, 21 Michael Dowsett, 22 Matt Toomua, 23 James Dargaville.
Crusaders – 15 Tom Taylor, 14 Jone Macilai, 13 Ryan Crotty, 12 David Havili, 11 Nemani Nadolo, 10 Dan Carter, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Kieran Read (c), 7 Richie McCaw, 6 Matt Todd, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Luke Romano, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Wyatt Crockett.
Subs: 16 Ben Funnell, 17 Alex Hodgman, 18 Nepo Laulala, 19 Jimmy Tupou, 20 Jordan Taufua, 21 Billy Guyton, 22 Colin Slade, 23 Nafi Tuitavake.
Photo: Phil Walters/Getty Images