The Crusaders outclassed the Highlanders 38-14 in the all-New Zealand Super Rugby quarter-final clash at AMI Stadium, Christchurch.
Richie Mo’unga starred for the home side, scoring twice and kicking six from six for a match-haul of 23 points, bringing up 600 Super Rugby points with his fifth conversion, in the process.
The Crusaders outscored the Highlanders five tries to two, pulling away in the second half with two scores in the third quarter.
This performance was a masterclass in finals rugby by the defending champions, who posted a shutout in the second half, while scoring 21 unanswered points.
A sixth defeat in seven matches against their hosts ends a somewhat disappointing season for Aaron Mauger’s men.
Liam Squire’s yellow card, soon after halftime, proved costly as the Crusaders extended their advantage when Whetukamokamo Douglas flopped over the chalk.
Michael Alaalatoa got in on the act, seven minutes later, before Mo’unga’s 69th-minute dagger sealed the deal.
The Highlanders ran out of ideas.
The Saders stretched their imperious home unbeaten run to 30 Super Rugby matches dating back to July 2016, with another impressive display in this all-Kiwi Quarter-final clash.
First-half tries by Sio Tomkinson and Teihorangi Walden, dotted down for the men from Dunedin, sandwiched David Havili’s first quarter five-pointer.
Ben Smith, returned after being sidelined for a month with a hamstring strain.
The legendary fullback bid farewell to a standing ovation from all four corners of the ground, but this is not the way he would have wanted to bow out.
The victory extends the Christchurch franchise’s unbeaten run in knockout home games to 22, which is ridiculous in any era of any sport.
Crusaders take early advantage despite early errors
The Crusaders took a slender three-point lead into the break after an entertaining first half, which saw both teams cross the whitewash twice.
Mo’unga’s third-minute penalty, opened the scoring, but the home team did not have everything their way.
They were dominant in the scrum and good on the ground, winning seven turnovers to two including three lineouts against the throw.
The Highlanders had all the territory (58%) and possession (64%), yet trailed because of some ill-discipline and school-boy errors in the set-pieces.
Jackson Hemopo had a try chalked off after the TMO rightly ruled that he had played the ball on the ground after being tackled.
Josh Ioane then missed a penalty, the ball hitting the left-hand upright, but Otago did strike soon afterwards.
Tomkinson crossed in the corner in the 17th-minute after a well-worked attack from a turnover at the Crusaders’ lineout.
Mistakes prove costly for both sides
The visitors coughed up three lineouts, one wayward throw, the other two stolen, although they did take one of their own.
Tom Franklin gathered the loose ball and ran over Mo’unga as he charged toward the line.
The Highlanders recycled the ball quickly to Rob Thompson, who sucked in two defenders and popped to Ben Smith.
The evergreen fullback drew the last defender and sent Tomkinson away.
Both sides struggled with the lineout set-piece, losing a throw apiece.
A Crusaders’ scrum-penalty saw Mounga kick to the corner. His forwards mauled forward before sending the ball wide.
Sevu Reece joined the line from the right wing, creating the diversion.
Mo’unga finds his mojo
Mo’unga sucked in the defenders before sending the ball to Havili, who waltzed through a big hole in the Highlanders’ midfield after Waisake Naholo jumped the gun.
The visitors probed the Saders’ back three with kicks behind the wingers.
Mauger’s side used the tactical cross-kick to Naholo a couple of times in the opening quarter, but the winger was tackled in to touch twice, though.
Then Mo’unga got his first.
He finished off a sweeping attack, involving backs and forwards to open up a 10-point lead before the half-hour.
A neat set-piece move saw the visitors hit back, closing the gap, three minutes before the interval through Walden.
Walden slipped Jack Goodhue’s tackle, after Aaron Smith’s smart switch of play, to reduce the deficit.
The try-assist was Smith’s 12th this season, equalling the Rebels‘ Quade Cooper.
Crusaders increase the tempo and pull away
Tries from Douglas, Mo’unga again, and Alaalatoa killed the game as a contest.
The home team’s defending was superb, keeping the Otago men scoreless as they march toward another home semi-final.
The Highlanders had no answer to the power of the home team’s forwards or the finesse of their backs.
Squire received a yellow for a no arms tackle on Douglas.
His tackle was not malicious, more clumsy, yet it proved costly and came at a crucial time.
Having scored before the break to keep themselves in the contest only to give away the game so soon after the break, was negligent.
Douglas flopped over the try line from a driving maul eight minutes after the restart,
The Highlanders did not engage with the opposition’s forwards and argued with referee Jaco Peyepr about the try.
They did not engage, allowing the home team to march forward and score, sending one player to sack the maul. It didn’t work.
Scott Robertson’s men strangled the visitors, striking through Alaalatoa, who crashed over from close range.
The game was over. Mistakes crept in as the benches emptied, and Mauger’s men went out with a whimper.
There was still time for Mo’unga to grab a brace and cap off an excellent display at first receiver.
The nine-times champions look unstoppable.
Final Score: Crusaders 38 (17) Highlanders 14 (14)
Tries – Havili, Mo’unga (2), Douglas, Alaalatoa
Pen – Mo’unga
Con – Mo’unga (5)
Tries – Tomkinson, Walden
Con – J. Ioane (2)
Cards – Squire (Yellow, 46′)
Referee: Jaco Peyper
Assistant Ref 1: Paul Williams
Assistant Ref 2: Brendon Pickerill
TMO: Ben Skeen
15 David Havili, 14 Sevu Reece, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 George Bridge, 10 Richie Mo’unga, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Matt Todd, 6 Whetukamokamo Douglas, 5 Samuel Whitelock (captain), 4 Scott Barrett, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Joe Moody.
Replacements: 16 Andrew Makalio, 17 Tim Perry, 18 Michael Alaalatoa, 19 Luke Romano, 20 Jordan Taufua, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 Mitchell Hunt, 23 Braydon Ennor.
15 Ben Smith (co-captain), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Rob Thompson, 12 Teihorangi Walden, 11 Patelesio Tomkinson, 10 Josh Ioane, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Luke Whitelock (co-captain), 7 James Lentjes, 6 Liam Squire, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Jackson Hemopo, 3 Tyrel Lomax, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown.
Replacements: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Ayden Johnstone, 18 Siate Tokolahi, 19 Josh Dickson, 20 Shannon Frizell, 21 Kayne Hammington, 22 Marty Banks, 23 Elliot Dixon.