The Crusaders needed their legendary fast finish as two late George Bridge tries snatched a 32-22 victory over the Highlanders and gave them the Super Rugby Aotearoa title with a week to spare.
AS IT HAPPENED: Crusaders v Highlanders
The little-fancied Highlanders led for the first 60 minutes but could not hold back the red wave as the Crusaders took control in the final quarter – a period which has produced 40 percent of their points in the competition.
Bridge ran in two tries in two minutes for the Crusaders to take the lead for the first time in the 62nd minute and Braydon Ennor cemented the win with a try five minutes from time.
The Crusaders won three Super Rugby titles in a row before the coronavirus crushed this year’s competition, replaced by New Zealand’s hastily-arranged domestic Aotearoa tournament between the country’s five Super Rugby sides.
The gutsy Highlanders had the better of the first half and were ahead 22-13 before the Crusaders put the hammer down in the final quarter.
The four-tries-to-three victory snuffed out the faint title hopes held by the Wellington Hurricanes and Auckland Blues and effectively ended the competition a week early.
There will be nothing at stake other than bragging rights when the Crusaders play the Blues and the Hurricanes face the Highlanders in the final round next weekend.
It was the Highlanders who looked most like a champion side in the opening stanza.
Jack Whetton won turnover ball which paved the way for the opening try to Shannon Frizell in the second minute.
After a series of fumbles and costly turnovers, the Crusaders clicked in the 12th minute with a long cut-out pass from Bryn Hall to spark a long-range attack involving Sevu Reece, Hall and George Bridge before Richie Mo’unga touched down.
But the Highlanders refused to lie down.
They came back with a Josh Ioane penalty and an 80-metre intercept try to Jona Nareki to open up a 10-point margin.
Two penalties to Mo’unga reduced the Highlanders lead to 17-13 at half-time.
A Michael Collins try pushed the Highlanders lead out to nine points before the Crusaders wrested control.
Bridge crossed twice in the 60th and 62nd minutes before Ennor completed the victory with five minutes remaining.
Tries: Richie Mo’unga, George Bridge (2), Braydon Ennor
Conversions: Mo’unga (3)
Penalties: Mo’unga (2)
Tries: Shannon Frizell, Jona Nareki, Michael Collins
Conversions: Josh Ioane (2)
15 Will Jordan, 14 Sevu Reece, 13 Braydon Ennor, 12 Jack Goodhue, 11 George Bridge, 10 Richie Mo’unga, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Whetukamokamo Douglas, 7 Tom Christie, 6 Tom Sanders, 5 Quinten Strange, 4 Sam Whitelock, 3 Michael Alaalatoa, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Joe Moody
Substitutes: 16 Andrew Makalio, 17 George Bower, 18 Oliver Jager, 19 Luke Romano, 20 Sione Havili, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 Brett Cameron, 23 Leicester Fainga’anuku
15 Mitch Hunt, 14 Josh McKay, 13 Michael Collins, 12 Sio Tomkinson, 11 Jona Nareki, 10 Josh Ioane, 9 Aaron Smith (co-captain), 8 Marino Mikaele-Tu’u, 7 Dillon Hunt, 6 Shannon Frizell, 5 Jack Whetton, 4 Pari Pari Parkinson, 3 Jeff Thwaites, 2 Ash Dixon (co-captain), 1 Ayden Johnstone