Crusaders beat Blues 7-21 to claim the first-ever Super Rugby Pacific title at a sold-out Eden Park, Auckland.
The Crusaders claimed a record 11th Super Rugby title – and 13th overall – with another impressive finals display as they dispatched the fancied Blues in the City of Sails.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
The Crusaders came full circle to the famous old ground where they won their first Super Rugby championship.
Back in 1998, the Crusaders beat the two-time defending champion Blues 20-13 at Eden Park, and they did so again.
The Christchurch club’s first Super 12 title kickstarted their first dynasty (1998 to 2008 – 7 titles in 11 seasons, losing two finals) while simultaneously ending the Auckland club’s early dominance.
The men from the Garden City ended the home team’s 2022 Super Rugby Pacific 15-match winning streak with a commanding victory in trying conditions on New Zealand’s North Island.
Scott Robertson’s return as head coach in 2016 kickstarted the Canterbury club’s second dynasty. Robertson has led the illustrious New Zealand franchise to six titles in six seasons.
The Crusaders won three Super Rugby championships in a row (2017, 2018 & 2019) before claiming back-to-back Super Rugby Aotearoa titles (2020 & 2021) after Covid-19 ripped up the southern hemisphere tournament.
The 47-year-old former Saders loose forward has now added a third incarnation of the competition to his career tally and sixth title in seven tournaments.
Blues had only won six of the previous 29 matches versus the Crusaders, but Leon MacDonald’s side did win the previous contest during the round-robin stage.
Spare a thought for the Blues; they had a magnificent season, losing once before tonight.
But previous one-off wins count for nothing when playing the juggernaut New Zealand titans.
The Crusaders last lost a final back in 2014 against the NSW Waratahs in Sydney.
In fact, the last time the Christchurch side lost an SR playoff match was when the Lions beat them in the 2016 quarter-final at Ellis Park in Johannesburg.
Victory for MacDonald’s men would be a tall order, which it was as the visitors scored 16 unanswered points to lead 16-0 at the end of the third quarter.
Richie Mo’unga kicked two penalties, one conversion and a drop goal (11 pts) in another assured finals display at first five-eighth.
Bryn Hall and Sevu Reece, late in the game, crossed for the Christchurch men.
Finlay Christie dotted down for the beleaguered Blues, but it was too little, too late.
Despite the wet and slippery conditions, the Crusaders led 13-0 at halftime thanks to Hall’s try and Mo’unga’s boot.
A disastrous display in the lineouts from the home team’s forwards certainly helped.
The Blues’ pack lost 10 of 19 lineouts and two of 11 scrums. They could not get their driving maul going because they could not win a lineout.
Things got so bad the hosts began to alternate between scrums and quick-tap penalties, such was the set-piece fiasco.
It was the first time since 2015 that the Blues had been kept scoreless in the first half of SR rugby at Eden Park.
The Aucklanders were also, however, kept scoreless in the second half against the Brumbies in last weekend’s semi-final, which is telling.
The Blues set-piece continued to collapse. Mo’unga knocked over an early penalty before Christie’s converted try cut the deficit.
The halfback’s score galvanised his side and gave the crowd hope. But you know what they say about hope: Do not look for it, because it is forsaken in these lands.
Reece clinched the game with four to play as the Crusaders sealed the deal.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
Richie Mo’unga’s boot and a late Bryn Hall try saw the Crusaders shutout the Blues to lead 13-0 at the interval
Mo’unga kicked a drop goal and penalty as well as converting Hall’s 40th-minute score as the Canterbury side took a commanding lead.
The Crusaders dominated the first half, almost scoring several times as the Blues defended for their lives.
The visitors swarmed the hosts with more than two-thirds of territory and possession in the opening stanza.
The warning signs were flashing early as both Reece and Leicester Faninga’anuku went close.
The Blues’ lineout was a shambles, losing three lineouts in the opening quarter of an hour.
In all, the Blues shipped six of their first 12 lineouts in an error-strewn 40 minutes from their forwards.
Mo’unga carved open the Blues with a show-and-go but Codie Taylor spilt the flyhalf’s inside pass. All three attacks came within the opening eight minutes as the hosts defended stoutly.
Fainga’anuku’s back-door offload sent Jack Goodhue down the touchline. Goodhue’s offload almost sent Taylor away but the hooker got tackled into touch before the corner flag.
Wave after wave of attacks kept the hosts pinned inside their 22. Another botched lineout led to a Crusaders 50/22.
Mo’unga opened the scoring in the 13th minute with a drop goal from in front.
Fainga’anuku crashed over from close range, but Akira Ioane and Christie get back to save the day. All this inside the opening 15 minutes.
The first attacking opportunity for MacDonald’s men ended in the form of another botched lineout, this time near their opponent’s try line.
Sam Whitelock snapped up another errant Kurt Eklund throw, which allowed the visitors to clear.
Mo’unga doubled his team’s advantage on the half-hour after the Blues strayed offside.
As the clock ticked down to the end of the half, the Crusaders did what they always do: score.
With seconds to go before the break, a patient 10-phase attack ended with Hall getting the game’s first try.
Mo’unga played an inside pass to Fainga’anuku on the angle. Fainga’anuku was again stopped short.
Matera darted from the ruck but went nowhere before Hall snuck over. The 26-year-old standoff added the extras to extend the visitor’s two-score advantage.
The more things change, the more they stay the same
The Blues’ lineout woes continued after the interval. A seventh lost lineout saw Cullen Grace steal possession.
Roger Tuivasa-Sheck strayed offside to allow Mo’unga an easy three points.
More pressure led to an attacking lineout on the hosts’ try line after Reece snapped up Hall’s raking grubber.
Scott Barrett was held up after a driving maul to earn the hosts a brief reprieve.
Dalton Papalii came off the bench to inject some go-forward for his team. A series of attacks ended with Christie losing possession near the opposition’s line.
That Beauden Barrett elected to take a tap-penalty instead of going to the corner, was indicative of the Blues’ problems with the set-piece.
Later, the Blues would opt for a scrum inside their half instead of kicking to touch.
A rare mistake at the set-piece for the Saders saw Christie knock the ball out of the number eight’s hands at the back of the scrum.
Christie got up quickly and gathered the loose ball before turning and darting over next to the poles.
Stephen Perofeta added the extras to make it a two-score game going into the last 20 minutes.
Mo’unga missed a 67th-minute shot at goal to keep alive faint Blues’ hopes. The Crusaders’ scrum began to wobble.
Christie kicked clear after another botched scrum by the opposition. Grace lost the ball again at the back of the scrum.
The 26-year-old scrumhalf booted forward, but Mo’unga got back to save the day.
With time running out, the game became stretched.
The Blues continued to probe, but they could not crack the red wall.
With minutes remaining, Reece latched on to Matera’s grubber to clinch the title. The bouncing ball deceived Sam Nock, and the Fijian flyer gathered to score.
The dynasty continues.
Final Score: Blues 7 (0) Crusaders 21 (13)
Tries – Christie
Con – Perofeta
Tries – Hall, Reece
Pen – Mo’unga (2)
Con – Mo’unga
Drop – Mo’unga
Referee: Ben O’Keeffe
Assistant Ref 1: Nic Berry
Assistant Ref 2: Stu Curran
TMO: Shane McDermott
Blues: 15 Stephen Perofeta, 14 AJ Lam, 13 Rieko Ioane, 12 Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, 11 Mark Telea, 10 Beauden Barrett (captain), 9 Finlay Christie, 8 Hoskins Sotutu, 7 Adrian Choat, 6 Akira Ioane, 5 Tom Robinson, 4 Josh Goodhue, 3 Nepo Laulala, 2 Kurt Eklund, 1 Alex Hodgman.
Replacements: 16 Soane Vikena, 17 Karl Tu’inukuafe, 18 Ofa Tuungafasi, 19 Luke Romano, 20 Dalton Papalii, 21 Sam Nock, 22 Bryce Heem, 23 Zarn Sullivan.
Crusaders: 15 Will Jordan, 14 Sevu Reece, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 David Havili, 11 Leicester Fainga’anuku, 10 Richie Mo’unga, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Cullen Grace, 7 Tom Christie, 6 Pablo Matera, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Scott Barrett (captain), 3 Oli Jager, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 George Bower.
Replacements: 16 Brodie McAlister, 17 Tamaiti Williams, 18 Fletcher Newell, 19 Quenten Strange, 20 Corey Kellow, 21 Mitch Drummond, 22 Braydon Ennor, 23 George Bridge.