Despite the Hurricanes keeping themselves in the title hunt yesterday, the Crusaders still had the chance to secure the title this weekend as they hosted the Highlanders to end Round 9. The Crusaders knew that a win would make it mathematically impossible for the Blues or ‘Canes to catch them, but found themselves behind almost immediately as Shannon Frizell crossed after just over a minute. Though the Crusaders were rattledand found themselves getting turned over with some regularity, a Sevu Reece break set Richie Mo’unga up for a 7-pointer to level the scores. Josh Ioane kicked a penalty to put the Highlanders back ahead, before Jona Nareki successfully gambled on going for the intercept against an overlap and just held off Reece in a footrace to extend the lead, with Ioane kicking the conversion and Mo’unga 2 penalties to take the teams in to halftime with the Higlanders leading 13-17.
After a tense start to the second half, the Crusaders looked set to take the lead through Bryn Hall, only for Josh McKay to force a knock-on on the line. Buoyed up by this, the Highlanders extended their advantage as Michael Collins crossed the line before the first points of the half. and then in a 5-minute spell on the hour mark, the game changed. An offload from replacement lock Luke Romano on the edge of his 22 sparked a break that ended in George Bridge crossing for a try – converted by Mo’unga – while the Crusader very next possession from the restart saw them go the length again and put Bridge over out wide, while the Highlanders were further hit by a yellow card for centre Sio Tomkinson for a shoulder charge off the ball in the build-up to the try. Though the Highlanders continued to fight, the Crusaders exploited the 1-man advantage as it expired for Braydon Ennor to score their 4ᵗʰ try, with MVP Richie Mo’unga converting to secure the 32-22 victory and the Super Rugby Aotearoa title with a game to spare.
The Crusaders sealed their 4ᵗʰ consecutive Super Rugby title with a week to spare but had it far from their own way in this match, and in doing so they highlighted their championship pedigree.
With so many handling errors, penalties and turnovers going against them in the first hour, so many teams would have been excused for going to a plan B and trying to get into the game with a tighter, more territory-focused gameplan. However, they kept playing the ball around as normal, going for the offload when they thought it was on and setting up the ruck when the offload wasn’t there. It didn’t always work out, such as for Nareki’s try, but the Crusaders had a 3-man overlap in that moment so he had to gamble!
In this game, the star players came to the fore in Mo’unga, Reece and captain Codie Taylor, who kept driving the team on and leading from the front, while Tom Christie also made some crucial turnovers. With the game going as it was, and the combination of Hall’s knock on and Collins’ try just after half time, so many teams would have thought that the game was getting beyond them and started looking ahead to next week’s match against the Blues as the title decider. Not the Crusaders though, and as always seems to be the case, the clock ticked pas the hour mark and they seemed to go up another couple of gears. The passes started sticking in the hands, the breakdowns were secured and in the space of less than 5 minutes the game changed completely.
With performances like this, you can see why the Crusaders have such an incredible level of success, and wonder why Scott Robertson is not the new All Blacks head coach.
It’s a shame that the competition is coming to an end, because the Highlanders have finally hit on the right balance for their team. A few weeks ago, I suggested the back line that they should go with, and it worked very well against the strongest team in the competition. Josh Ioane and Mitch Hunt have controlled and varied the attack so well fromt heir 10/15 axis, Michael Collins has provided improved distribution in the midfield to complement Tomkinson’s physicality, Nareki has shown himself to be their best attacking option out wide and and McKay’s pace has been key in both attack and defence, and Aaron Smith has been Aaron Smith!
Meanwhile in the pack, both Shannon Frizell and Dillon Hunt have grown into the competition, creating a great back row with Marino Mikaele-Tu’u that exhibits a great balance between physicality, technical ability, carrying and defensive ability. Ash Dixon and Liam Coltman provide an experienced 1-2 punch at hooker while players like Pari Pari Parkinson work great as physical enforcers who also play a key role in the set piece.
In a trans-Tasman tournament, I’d be confident in this Highlanders team finishing in the top half. But in a 5-team Aotearoa tournament, it’s going to be a hard fight.