Crusaders wrap up the championship
By Roger Childs
The weekend’s matches provided great first hand entertainment for crowds of 21,000 in Wellington and 17,000 in Christchurch, not to mention the hundreds of thousands watching on screen within New Zealand and around the world. The Hurricanes needed to beat the Chiefs on Saturday night to keep their championship hopes alive, but if the Crusaders prevailed over the Highlanders on Sunday the title was theirs. In the end, both home teams won, but the Christchurch-based franchise had to make a comeback in the last quarter of the match to hold off a strong challenge from the southerners.
Hurricanes far too strong
The Hurricanes started superbly at the Cake Tin with powerful running, few mistakes and great support play. Early on they were out to 12-3 after two excellent tries to Peter-Umaga Jensen, one of the finds of the season. TJ Perenara had an excellent game from half back, with quick accurate passing, judicious kicking and determined running. Once again, Jordie Barrett demonstrated his all-round skills at full back and was always a danger for the Chiefs with his hard running and long, well-timed passing. Overall the Hurricanes forwards had the ascendancy with locks Blackwell and Scrafton featuring prominently in the tight and taking the ball up in mid field. Loosies Ardie Savea and Du’Plessis Karifi tackled hard and were impressive with ball in hand. The Chiefs tried hard but they didn’t have the range of skills, the intensity or the consistency to represent a real threat. Losing skipper Sam Cane in the first half didn’t help.
It’s been a miserable tournament for the Chiefs losing all eight matches, while the Hurricanes made it five wins in row on Saturday and will be seeking another in their final game in Dunedin next weekend.
Super skills in the southern derby
The visitors held the lead until the last quarter on a beautiful afternoon in Christchurch. Led by inspirational hooker Elliot Dixon and mercurial half back Aaron Smith, the Highlanders were deservedly ahead after 60 minutes and pushed the lead out to 22-14 at one point. However a characteristic storming finish from the Crusaders including two tries to left winger George Bridge and another to Braydon Ennor got the team home by 32-22. Having a man in the sin bin for half of the final quarter didn’t help the Highlanders cause, but they never stopped attacking. Aaron Smith just missed touching down behind the posts late in game, a score which could have taken the score to 29-32, but it wasn’t to be.
The forward battle was an even contest, with Shannon Frizell outstanding for the visitors and scored the first try, while Codie Taylor was dangerous with ball in hand for the home team. Both backlines were impressive on attack, with plenty of line breaks, speedy attacking and pinpoint passing, but there were lapses on defence. Aaron Smith fired out long, speedy passes to get his backs away and both first-fives were excellent – Richie Mo’unga for the home team was always dangerous with his speed in the open and excellent support play, while Josh Ioane with tricky running was often able to break the line and link up with supporting players.
It was an exciting match which ebbed and flowed up and down the field, and while eight tries were scored, many promising attacks were thwarted by desperate tackling, forward turn-overs, and penalties against players leaving their feet in rucks.
The Crusaders were not at their best and once again it was a few moments of brilliance which got them home. However, it was enough for them to retain their Super Rugby title. They meet the Blues in Auckland next weekend and will be keen to show that they are worthy champions.