The defending champions Canterbury Crusaders marched resolutely into the Super Rugby semi-finals Saturday with a 40-10 demolition of the Coastal Sharks in Christchurch.
The Crusaders, in search of a ninth Super crown, underscored their status as competition favourites with 17 unanswered points in the closing stages and a fortress-like defence that restricted the Sharks to only one try.
They scored five tries of their own, extended their current winning streak to 13 and have now not lost at home to an overseas side since the opening round of 2015.
The Crusaders will host the Wellington Hurricanes next weekend in the semi-finals after the ‘Canes snatched a 32-31 win over the Waikato Chiefs in the first quarter-final on Friday.
In the clash of the top and bottom qualifiers into the top eight, the Sharks felt they still had a chance when they trailed by only 13 points with 25 minutes to play before the Crusaders ran in two late tries from long range.
But despite the razzle-dazzle, rival captains Sam Whitelock and Ruan Botha agreed the Crusaders defence was a key difference.
“We always knew they would be big, strong and they carried very, very direct. I was just happy the boys stepped up, stayed nice and composed when it was quite tight in the middle,” Crusaders skipper Whitelock said.
Botha said the South Africans knew it would be a tough encounter.
“Hats off to them, their defence was strong and with their attacking play they just kept on running into holes, turning our backs and putting themselves into space.”
The Crusaders were gifted their first 13 points.
Richie Mo’unga landed a penalty after a Sharks scrum was marched backwards, Bryn Hall scored from a lineout after a Shark’s clearing kick went out on the full, and David Havili’s try came from a lineout steal.
But when the Sharks settled it was the Crusaders who faltered as they yielded territory by conceding five penalties in quick succession and a Kieran Read pass was intercepted which led to their sole try by Kobus van Wyk.
Although unable to cross the line again, the Sharks maintained their momentum until just on half-time when the Crusaders came back within striking range for Mo’unga to land his second penalty.
As they so often do, the Crusaders not only scored just before the break but they struck immediately after the resumption.
George Bridge stepped his way through the Sharks pack before the ball was off-loaded to Matt Todd for the try.
A Robert du Preez penalty closed the gap to 23-10 before the Crusaders launched into their finishing flourish with a penalty to Mo’unga who then converted tries by Braydon Ennor and Pete Samu.
cf/mtp (Additional editing by Sean McMahon)
© Agence France-Presse