Defending champions Canterbury Crusaders charged into their 13th Super Rugby final with a comprehensive 30-12 victory over the Wellington Hurricanes in Christchurch on Saturday.
The platform was set by the All Blacks-laden pack who drove relentlessly into the Hurricanes, allowing fly-half Richie Mo’unga the time and space to dictate play.
In a match billed as the final before the final, with the conference format putting the top two teams from the regular season this year on the same side of the play-off draw, the Crusaders struck early and never fell behind.
The eight-times champions enjoyed 54 per cent of possession, forcing the Hurricanes to make 134 tackles and miss 31 more.
Their ability to launch a long-range counter from turnover ball, and to score either side of half-time, proved crucial as they built an 18-7 lead at half-time and immediately moved to 25-7 after the resumption.
Captain Sam Whitelock said the Crusaders fed off the direction given by Mo’unga and a passionate defence.
“Richie’s done it all year. He’s pretty quick over those first couple of steps and is hard to keep up with.
“And defence reveals what the team means to you and the boys worked hard for each other.”
Hurricanes skipper Brad Shields, playing his last game before heading off to England, said the turnover proved costly.
“You’ve got to build phases down the right end of the field and a couple of times we let them off the hook pretty easy and turned around and they scored pretty easy.”
The four tries to two outcome saw the Crusaders protect a remarkable record of being undefeated in 20 playoff matches on home soil.
Hurricanes coach Chris Boyd said before the match that the result would be determined by the forwards and that’s how it turned out with the Crusaders turning on a merciless display.
It gave Mo’unga the chance to outshine his more illustrious All Blacks opposite Beauden Barrett.
Mo’unga finished with 15 points, starting with a try in the 15th minute after the Crusaders had hammered away at the line for several minutes.
Julian Savea levelled for the Hurricanes before the Crusaders used turnover ball to pile on 11 points in the countdown to the break with a try to George Bridge and two Mo’unga penalties.
It was a familiar pattern at the start of the second half when the Hurricanes lost the ball when pressuring the Crusaders line and the immediate counter-attack ended with a try to David Havilii more than 80 metres downfield.
It was turnover ball again which saw a Mo’unga crossfield kick produce a try to Braydon Ennor.
The Hurricanes bagged their second try in the final play of the day when left wing Ben Lam crossed for his record 16th try this year.
cf/jta (Additional editing by Sean McMahon)
© Agence France-Presse