AUCKLAND, New Zealand (AP) — The Auckland-based Blues will play the Dunedin-based Highlanders in the final of Super Rugby trans-Tasman next weekend after New Zealand champions the Crusaders fell short of a finals place in the tournament’s final round.
The Blues, who led the competition for most of the five-round season, beat the Western Force 31-21 to clinch their finals place on Saturday while the Highlanders unexpectedly claimed a place a day earlier with a bonus-point win over the ACT Brumbies.
The Highlanders' win meant the Christchurch-based Crusaders had to win their last match against the Melbourne Rebels on Saturday with a bonus point and a margin of at least 33 points to join the Blues in the final.
But while they won 52-26 and by eight tries to four, they fell seven points short of the necessary 33 point margin.
That threw the spotlight on several crucial incidents in the match, especially in the 40th minute when Crusaders center Braydon Ennor dropped the ball with the goal line open, not a defender in sight. The Crusaders had broken out from near their own line and Ennor had exchanged passes with winger Manasa Mataele before breaking into the open field.
With the goal line beckoning, Ennor tried to adjust the position of the ball and managed only to drop it cold, meaning a vital seven points went begging.
There were other pivotal moments: in the 74th minute, winger Leicester Fainga’anuku appeared to have scored the vital try but saw it disallowed for a double movement; and in the 42nd minute, fullback Will Jordan was tackled into touch in the right corner by Rebels center Andrew Kellaway.
Jordan also received a contentious yellow card for a deliberate knock on in the 26th minute and in his absence the Rebels scored a try through scrumhalf Joe Powell which made the Crusaders’ winning equation more complex.
In the end, the Crusaders had only themselves to blame. They had chances to win the match but left too many points on the field.
They started well with tries to scrumhalf Mitch Drummond and Jordan in the first five minutes, which should have been the launching pad they needed for a 33-point win. But in their desperation to achieve that margin, they departed from the usual precision of their game plan and made too many errors.
“Our plan was to be patient, hold the ball and not force the issue,” Crusaders lock Sam Whitelock said. “But it was a little bit disappointing, we didn’t quite get there. We had it in our hands tonight and unfortunately we came up short.”
The Blues started strongly but finished poorly in their win over the Force which brings a Super Rugby final to Eden Park for the first time since 2003.
In the first half, they kicked accurately to pin the Force in their own half, plundered the Force’s lineout and built up patiently, working the middle of the part before using flyhalf Otere Black’s long pass to probe on the outside.
Backrower Hoskins Sotutu scored two first half tries, helping the Blues to a 28-0 lead at halftime.
The Blues then faltered, scoring only three points in the second half while the Force scored tries through hooker Feleti Kaitu’u, center Tevita Kuridrani and former Ireland international Rob Kearney.
In the final match on Saturday, New Zealand's Chiefs beat New South Wales 35-7 to hand the Waratahs their 13th loss in a row. Winger Sean Wainui scored four tries to lead the Chiefs.
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