AUCKLAND, New Zealand (AP) — The Christchurch-based Crusaders produced a dominant first-half performance then held out against an energized second half from the Auckland-based Blues on Saturday to win the Super Rugby Pacific final 21-7 for their 13th Super Rugby title.
Scrumhalves Bryn Hall for the Crusaders and Finlay Christie for the Blues scored the first two tries of a fast-paced and action-packed match played in front of 43,000 fans at Eden Park — the largest crowd at a New Zealand rugby match in almost three years.
Winger Sevu Reece sealed the match for the Crusaders with a try against the run of play in the 76th minute, ensuring the end of the Blues’ club-record 15-match winning streak at the worst possible moment.
Hall scored in the 40th minute to cap a first half in which the Crusaders stunned and swept aside the Blues on their home ground, though the lead was only 13-0 at the break. Flyhalf Richie Mo’unga produced their other points from a conversion, a penalty and a rare dropped goal which provided the first points of the match.
A further penalty to Mo’unga gave the Crusaders a 16-0 lead immediately after halftime but Christie scored in the 59th minute as the Blues shook themselves awake and began to compete more decisively.
If one area signaled the Crusaders’ first-half superiority it was the lineout; they effected five steals from Blues throws in the first half and two more leading up to Mo’unga’s early second-half penalty. Without that reliable source of possession, the Blues were at a tactical disadvantage throughout the first half and during the second they had at times to play around the disadvantage.
All statistics went in favor of the Crusaders before halftime: they had more than 70% of territory, 60% of possession, they had more than 80 carries to their opponents’ 38 and they held the Blues scoreless in a half for the first time in seven years.
The veteran All Blacks lock Sam Whitelock was at the heart of the Crusaders’ lineout success, helped by Cullen Grace and Quenten Strange who repeatedly prevented throws reaching their targets.
“We didn’t play very well during the season but we began to pick up momentum and we had a massive effort (in the semifinal) last week,” Whitelock said. “We really grew on that.
“Quinten Strange and Cully Grace did an awesome job (at the lineout). We wanted to get up and put pressure on them. That’s what got us across the line in the end.”
The Crusaders won the toss, chose to kick off and from the start all but camped in the Blues’ half. The Blues didn’t escape from their own territory for the first six minutes and then only momentarily, before the Crusaders captured their first lineout steal.
The Blues played the first half with their backs to the goalline, trapped by a Crusaders team which rarely yielded possession. The Crusaders took the ball into collision and retained it, though the Blues defense still had some victories.
Crusaders winger Leicester Fainga’anuku went close to scoring in the third minute, forced out in the corner by a double tackle from Mark Telea and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck.
Hooker Codie Taylor was held up just short of the line in the 13th minute after another raid by Fainga’anuku.
Mo’unga took the chance to bring the Crusaders their first points with a dropped goal in the 13th minute when his team held a penalty advantage. Faiga’anuku went close again in the 16th minute and the Blues posed a rare breakout threat in the 20th minute which was defused by Whitelock.
Mo’unga added a penalty in the 23rd minute and Hall scored just before halftime. The Blues were hard against their goalline and had held out 15 phases of Crusaders attack when Fainga’anuku and Pablo Matera went close and Hall managed to dot the ball over the line.
After Mo’unga’s penalty, the Blues looked better in the second half behind a strong scrum which caused the Crusaders concern. From a twisted scrum, Christie disrupted possession and then regained the ball to dive over for the Blues’ only try.
The match wavered for the next 15 minutes; the Blues were competitive and another try might have swung momentum. But Reece scored out of nothing to clinch the championship. Whitelock won a turnover, Matera — the former Argentina captain — put a kick into space and Reece won the race to the ball near the line.
“We knew we didn’t fire a shot in the first half and had to look hard at ourselves and come up with some solutions,” Blues captain Beauden Barrett said. “We knew we had no option but to come out in that second half and throw everything at it.
“We have to give credit to the Crusaders because their defense tonight was outstanding.”
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