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Crusaders leave best until last

Super Rugby Aotearoa title wrapped up with week to play

Another year, another title for the Crusaders as they claimed the Super Rugby Aotearoa title to go with their 10 Super Rugby titles when beating a gallant Highlanders side 32-22 at Orangetheory Stadium on Sunday.

It was a tough ask and wasn’t secured until two tries in three minutes, to left wing George Bridge at the three-quarter mark, finally subdued a Highlanders side who threw everything at their neighbours to make life difficult for them.

Co-captain Aaron Smith, flankers Shannon Frizell and Dillon Hunt, hard-tackling second five-eighths Patelesio Tomkinson and first five-eighths Josh Ioane, who produced his finest display in Super Rugby, combined to spearhead the Highlanders efforts.

But while they impressed, it was the knowledge under pressure that the Crusaders demonstrated that marked their win. Power up front, continuity in phase play and the inspirational direction of first five-eighths Richie Mo’unga ensured the Crusaders couldn’t be shut out.

When they look back at where the drive came from to produce such a strong final quarter they could do worse than recognise the efforts of replacement forward Sione Havili, whose ball-running so often provided momentum in crucial plays.

A better start could not have been made by the Highlanders. They went onto attack from the kick-off and immediately halfback Aaron Smith made his presence felt with the speed and accuracy of his passing. After lock Jack Whetton made a key tackle and drove to provide turnover ball, Smith gave right wing Josh McKay a chance to put his speed to use to take play deep into the 22m area.

Then from another ruck it was Smith who propelled lock Pari Pari Parkinson forward and another pass gave Frizell the sniff of a chance which he took to score 1min and 1sec into the game.

With the Highlanders continuing to press, some disorganised chaos among the Crusaders backs eventually prised open the defence. It came when halfback Bryn Hall brought sanity back to proceedings by unleashing his long pass to wing Sevu Reece who had space along the sideline to race ahead.

Inside he had Hall, left-wing George Bridge and finally Mo’unga who scored under the crossbar in the 14th minute.

The Crusaders nearly celebrated from the re-start when No 8 Whetukamokamo Douglas took the ball and gave it to hooker Codie Taylor and after he sprinted ahead he found second five-eighths Jack Goodhue alongside. However, scrambling Highlanders defence resolved the matter.

The Crusaders continued to push but were unable to finish and it was Ioane, having moments earlier had a penalty goal attempt rebound off the upright, who kicked a 21st minute penalty goal.

Mounting a response the Crusaders moved the ball and when lock Sam Whitelock attempted to tip a pass along, Highlanders wing Jona Nareki took it instead and set sail for the distant goalline with Reece in pursuit. But Nareki had the legs to score.

As the second half progressed the Crusaders were finding it hard to get the initiative in their usual fashion, most obviously when Hall looked to convert a stunning break by Mo’unga but he had the ball knocked from his hands by a desperate tackle on the line by McKay.

Then after an attempt to set a long range counter, the Crusaders turned over ball when Taylor dropped the ball and Hunt took the ball and drove ahead. From the ruck Ioane produced a superb piece of footwork to go to the line. From the ruck, Smith and fullback Mitch Hunt combined to give centre Michael Collins a chance that he took to score 53 minutes into the game.

But the Highlanders couldn’t make maximum use of a turnover on their own line. They looked to run the ball out and while making partial progress, they suffered a direct kick to touch and that was enough for the Crusaders to pour on the lineout pressure.

Mo’unga wasn’t held with the ball and from that point Goodhue and fullback Will Jordan set up wing George Bridge to score in the 61st minute.

As the play restarted, replacement lock Luke Romano was in midfield where he demonstrated his ball-handling with a superb offload to Mo’unga and Jordan again put Bridge in for his second try in two minutes as the Crusaders claimed a 25-22 lead.

In the build-up prop Oli Jager went down in an off-the-ball tackle by Tomkinson who was yellow-carded in the time taken to have Jager assisted from the field.

Smith went close to scoring after a powerful surge orchestrated by Frizell and more sparkling footwork from Ioane, but the chance was lost and when the chance came it was the outside backs who provided the impetus on the right flank.

Again, as has been the case so often in the tournament a touch judge howler saw a Crusaders foot in touch went undetected and in resulting play a penalty was awarded and from it the chance came for centre Braydon Ennor who scored with six minutes left.

Crusaders 32 (Richie Mo’unga, George Bridge 2, Braydon Ennor tries; Mo’unga 3 con, 2 pen)
Highlanders 22 (Shannon Frizell, Jona Nareki, Michael Collins tries; Josh Ioane 2 con, pen)
HT: 13-17

Yellow cards: Patelesio Tomkinson 64min

The teams are:
Crusaders: 1.Joe Moody (replaced by George Bower, 14 mins), 2.Codie Taylor (captain – replaced by Andrew Makalio, 56 mins), 3.Michael Alaalatoa (replaced by Oli Jager, 56 mins, recalled after 65mins), 4.Sam Whitelock, 5.Quinten Strange (replaced by Luke Romano, 56 mins), 6.Tom Sanders (replaced by Tom Sanders, 49 mins), 7.Tom Christie, 8.Whetukamokamo Douglas, 9.Bryn Hall (replaced by Mitch Drummond, 47 mins), 10.Richie Mo’unga (replaced by Brett Cameron, 78 mins, 11.George Bridge, 12.Jack Goodhue, 13.Braydon Ennor (replaced by Leicester Fainga’anuku, 76 mins), 14.Sevu Reece, 15.Will Jordan.

Highlanders: 1.Ayden Johnstone (replaced by Daniel Lienert-Brown, 41 mins), 2.Ash Dixon (captain – replaced by Liam Coltman 58 mins)), 3.Siate Tokolahi (replaced by Jeff Thwaites, 50 mins), 4.Pari Pari Parkinson (replaced by Jesse Parete, 56 mins), 5.Jack Whetton (replaced by Manaaki Selby-Rickit, 41 mins), 6.Shannon Frizell, 7.Dillon Hunt, 8.Marino Mikaele-Tu’u (replaced by Teariki Ben-Nicholas, 63 mins), 9.Aaron Smith (captain), 10.Josh Ioane, 11.Jona Nareki (replaced by Ngatungane Punivai – 56 mins), 12.Patelesio Tomkinson, 13.Michael Collins, 14.Josh McKay, 15.Mitch Hunt.
Substitutes not required: 21.Folau Fakatava.

Referee: Paul Williams

© 2020 Lynn McConnell

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