Crusaders clinch fifth straight Super Rugby title

The Crusaders celebrate after winning a tense final against the Chiefs in Christchurch. Photo:...
The Crusaders celebrate after winning a tense final against the Chiefs in Christchurch. Photo: Getty Images
Champion teams find a way no matter what. The fifth straight Crusaders title was a case of surviving rather than thriving. In tight, tense finals, the manner in which you win matters not, though. Few teams in world rugby could recover from losing two men to the bin. That the Crusaders did adds yet another chapter to their legacy that now boasts 12 championships.

The maiden Super Rugby Aotearoa final won't be remembered as a memorable spectacle. Free-flowing action was in short supply in the tryless second half in particular as the Crusaders scrapped away after being reduced to 13 men.

But after a difficult campaign in which they lost All Blacks Joe Moody and Jack Goodhue to injury and dropped two matches en route to the final, Scott Robertson deserves immense credit for guiding his battered team to another crown. Since taking charge in 2017, Robertson is yet to lose a final.

Richie Mo'unga stepped up, as he so often has for the Crusaders, to grab the contest by the scruff when it mattered most. With one break, brilliant tactical kicking and his first, timely Super Rugby drop goal Mo'unga led the composed and clinical nature of the Crusaders' final quarter response that maintained their unbeaten home playoff record – 25 matches now – in front of 17,000 fans who endured increasingly heavy rain.

On reflection, in their first final for eight years, the Chiefs will have regrets.

No one could fault their courage that has epitomised their gutsy season. From losing 11 matches in a row over the past two years to reaching the final is reason enough to be proud.

Yet the Chiefs will rue their option taking when the Crusaders were two men down as they kicked away far too much ball. Scoring three points in that 20-minute period cost them dearly.

Damian McKenzie was Mr Clutch as he kicked the Chiefs to three last-gasp wins in the regular season but his three missed penalties let the Crusaders off the hook.

In a losing team Chiefs hooker Samisoni Taukei'aho carried superbly; Luke Jacobson was close to best player on the park and fellow loose forward Lachlan Boshier relentlessly targeted the breakdown.

Crusaders flanker Ethan Blackadder once again stated his case for an All Blacks call-up after another compelling defensive effort which included overcoming a dislocated finger and winning crucial breakdown turnovers, while Will Jordan frequently threatened from the back and was the best player in the air.

After leading 15-10 at halftime the Crusaders were reduced to 13 men midway through the second half when All Blacks hooker Codie Taylor tackled McKenzie in the air after an overthrown lineout which earned him a yellow card.

Five minutes after Taylor was sent to the bin, Sevu Reece hit Chase Tiatia high with a reckless shot that likewise earned him a yellow card. Those incidents continued a theme of poor discipline from the Crusaders which saw them finish on the wrong side of a 14-10 penalty count.

A McKenzie penalty brought the Chiefs within two points but that was as close as the visitors got. Despite being down on troops, the Crusaders found a way to turn the screws and kick clear through Mo'unga's accurate boot.

The Crusaders showed their intent early to start with a different pace and urgency to the Chiefs.

In the Crusaders first venture in to the 22 Mo'unga gave Reece enough room to barrel over the top of McKenzie to claim the opening try. A matter of minutes later, Jordan latched onto David Havili's well-weighted grubber which popped up perfectly for the dangerous fullback.

At that point, leading 12-3, it seemed the Crusaders would steamroll their way to another title.

Crusaders centre Leicester Fainga'anuku was a constant threat with ball in hand as his powerful carries regularly put his team on the front foot, giving Mo'unga ample time and space to select his options.

As they have throughout this season the Chiefs managed to regroup, however. The Crusaders repelled a surprise 13-man Chiefs lineout five metres out from their line but when Alex Nankivell received the ball in space he produced a Sonny Bill Williams-esque offload to send McKenzie sprinting to the corner.

That try settled the Chiefs' nerves, drawing them within two points. They were unlucky not to finish a second try after a superb breakout from their 22 that featured backs and forwards linking and Jonah Lowe grounding the ball inches short of the line. The ambition to attack from deep, however, reflected the Chiefs' growing confidence.

Trailing at the break, the Chiefs injected lock Naitoa Ah Kuoi for Mitchell Brown after losing two lineout throws under intense lineout pressure in the first spell.

The Chiefs had enough ball, the two-man advantage and chances to seriously challenge the Crusaders in the second half but the locals ultimately refused to succumb which is testament to the dynasty they continue to build under Robertson.

Crusaders 24 (Sevu Reece, Will Jordan tries; Richie Mo'unga con, 3 pens, drop goal)
Chiefs 13 (Damian McKenzie try, con, 2 pens)
HT: 15-10

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