The Crusaders have done it again.
For the sixth time in as many seasons, Scott Robertson’s side have won silverware, this time claiming the inaugural Super Rugby Pacific title after beating the Blues 21-7 in front of a sold-out Eden Park in Auckland.
As formidable an outfit the Crusaders are, this went against the script, which read that the Blues would deliver their expectant fans with a fifth title on the back of a standout campaign.
Earlier this year, they’d beaten the Crusaders to snap an 18-year winless drought in Christchurch during a record-breaking 15-match unbeaten run to position themselves at the summit of the competition standings at the end of the regular season.
Led by Beauden Barrett and supported by an all-star cast of teammates, many believed that the Blues could take advantage of that momentum and back-up last year’s Super Rugby Trans-Tasman success by toppling the Crusaders in what was the most-anticipated Super Rugby final in recent memory.
It wasn’t to be, though.
Falling short at the final hurdle, Leon MacDonald’s men learned why the Crusaders have established themselves as the greatest team in the history of the competition, and why they have won almost every title available to them since 2017.
Going into the final, the visitors flew under the radar compared of the Blues, but they gave everyone a stern reminder as to why the can never be taken lightly right from the get-go.
Withstanding a barrage of pressure early on as Crusaders dominated possession and territory, the Blues were forced them to produce multiple try-saving tackles inside the first quarter of an hour.
A three-man effort was enough to deny Leicester Fainga’anuku in the first genuine try-scoring chance of the encounter, and that was followed by a blinder of a Mark Telea tackle on Codie Taylor, with both efforts forcing the Crusaders into touch.
Tremendous scrambling defence by Finlay Christie then saw Fainga’anuku held up over the line, but the Crusaders were already ahead by that point after Richie Mo’unga calmly slotted a mid-range drop goal.
That level-headed three-pointer came after Mo’unga showcased his attacking brilliance with a searing run upfield from inside his own 22 that should have been capitalised, only for a Taylor spillage to nullify any threat the Crusaders posed.
Regardless, the Blues would have been satisfied to have trailed by only three points by the 20-minute mark considering the intensity of the Crusaders’ attack, which would have broken many other defences.
What the hosts can’t have been happy with, however, was their accuracy at the set piece, as the Crusaders – spearheaded by captain Scott Barrett – pinched, in total, 10 of the opposition’s 19 throws, disrupting any continuity the Blues attempted to build.
In the end, that was enough for the Crusaders to yield points, firstly through the boot of Mo’unga, who landed his first penalty attempt of the night, before Bryn Hall snuck over from close range right on the stroke of half-time.
Down 13-0 at the break – and fortunate that the officials had enough common sense to not send Nepo Laulala to the sin bin for what could have been deemed a dangerous tackle (the same could also be applied to Jack Goodhue) – the Blues needed to be the next team to strike.
That wasn’t the case, though, as the Crusaders rolled their way up the park through some impressive grunt work by their forwards – a continuation of their work in the first half – to earn their side a penalty after just five minutes.
Mo’unga duly converted that ill-discipline points, but that was the last point that the Crusaders really exemplified any sort of dominance in the fixture as disciplinary issues of their own.
As those issues started to creep into their game, the Blues began to threaten more and more with ball in hand, to the point where they started to entrench themselves inside the Crusaders’ half to an extent they hadn’t throughout the course of the first half.
That culminated in a try to Christie, who took full advantage of some sloppy scrum work by the Crusaders inside their own half to dot down in the same spot that his opposite Hall had scored 20 minutes earlier.
With their tails up and the Eden Park faithful rallying behind their side, the Blues looked more comfortable in their play while the Crusaders appeared continually rattled.
An uptake in significant plays, such as the explosive breaks by Hoskins Sotutu and Dalton Papalii, put the Crusaders on the back foot by the Blues, leading to uncharacteristic errors by the serial title-winners as the match entered its final quarter.
Those nerves were compounded when Mo’unga failed to drain a long-range attempt on goal from a scrum penalty won by Tamaiti Williams, but only for a brief period.
Instead, they illustrated their ability to force the Blues backwards, suck a turnover or error out of them, or simply defend with tremendous effort to keep the hosts at arm’s length in the game’s closing stages.
Ultimately, it were those traits that paved the way for Sevu Reece’s title-sealing try with only a handful of minutes to play.
As hoards of Blues fans left with time still on the clock, the Crusaders bench reacted with jubilation as their side outmuscled, outsmarted and outclassed their counterparts.
Tries to Bryn Hall and Sevu Reece; conversion, 2 penalties and drop goal to Richie Mo’unga
Try to Finlay Christie; conversion to Stephen Perofeta)