The Crusaders edged the Brumbies 31-29 to open their Super Rugby Trans-Tasman campaign with a hard-fought victory at Orangetheory Stadium, Christchurch.
Noah Lolesio missed a walk-off game-tying conversion from near the corner after two late tries by Tom Banks and Rob Valetini brought the Brumbies on the brink of an unlikely positive result in New Zealand.
The home team led by 14 points with less than eight minutes to play. But a late fightback saw the Brumbies go close to drawing what was a messy, disjointed Super Rugby match.
The Crusaders continue their dominance over the Brumbies – and Australian opposition – with a 10th consecutive Super Rugby win over the Canberra franchise.
The two-point win is the Kiwi franchise’s 20th victory in the previous 21 contests against Aussie clubs.
The last time the Australian Capital Territory side won in Christchurch was in 2000.
It was so long ago that Crusaders head coach Scott Robertson was playing in the loss.
This was a tough game for the 12-times Super Rugby champs, who looked jaded from last weekend’s Super Rugby Aotearoa final win over the Chiefs.
But that is no excuse because the Brumbies played a brutal, energy-sapping Super Rugby AU final loss in Brisbane against the Queensland Reds.
The Brumbies lost at the death after leading most of the game, while the Saders won their final, so this was always going to be a disjointed contest.
Crusaders took a deserved 12-point lead into the shed, but the champion outfit was not at its best
Crusaders captain Codie Taylor brought up a century of Super Rugby caps, while Folau Fainga’a and Irae Simone both notched their 50th games for the Brumbies.
Robertson’s men led 19-7 at the break after three tries by Ethan Blackadder, Richie Mo’unga, and David Havili. Lolesio converted Scott Sio’s try.
Simone’s converted try and a Lolesio penalty soon after the restart kept the visitors in the game.
Brendon O’Connor and Cullen Grace scored within six minutes of each other as the hosts looked to kill the game.
But Banks scored a superb solo try from inside his half to give the visitors a sniff at 31-24 with less than seven minutes remaining.
Ereatara Enari was yellow-carded at the death for totting up offences by the home team, and it proved costly.
Valetini crashed over after the hooter, but Lolesio could not tie the game.
Crusaders lead at halftime, but they should have had more but for unforced errors and stubborn Brumbies’ resistance
Blackadder opened the scoring in the fifth minute. The flanker went over untouched, following a free-flowing counter-attack after Banks and Ryan Lonergan both failed to find touch with clearance kicks.
The Brumbies fought back, they eschewed two kickable shots at goal, and it paid off when Sio crashed over on 27 minutes. Lolesio converted.
It had been a frustrating game up to that point, both sides making numerous handling mistakes.
Problems with the front rows in the scrums meant the game was a stop-start affair played with no pace or tempo.
A mistake from the restart by the visitors led to Mo’unga scoring a minute after Sio. The standoff converted to put the hosts back in front.
Havili scored before the interval when he intercepted Ryan Lonergan’s lazy pass and ran half the length of the field to score under the posts. Mo’unga added the extras.
The Saders should have had more points soon after but Taylor decided against kicking a penalty and opted against a 5m scrum.
Instead, Taylor took a quick tap and after a few phases on the opposition’s line, Braydon Ennor – returning for the first time since a horrific injury in the New Zealand North vs South game last year – dropped the ball over the try line.
Brumbies stay in the contest as Crusaders cannot put the game to bed
Simone scored under the posts 10 minutes after halftime to reduce the deficit.
It was a strange score, Simone found himself unmarked at the ruck, he picked up the ball and dotted down unchallenged for the score.
The visitors scored 10 unanswered points in the third quarter. Lolesio converted Simone’s try and kicked a penalty before the hour to make it 19-17.
A couple of minutes after Lolesio’s penalty, Luke Reimer made a try-saving tackle on Blackadder, who thought he had a second.
However, as the Crusaders are want to do, they found a way to break down the visitor’s stubborn resistance.
Instead of taking a kickable shot at goal to open up a two-score lead, the Crusaders kicked to touch.
Their persistence paid off when Grace took Enari’s flat pass to score next to the posts. Mo’unga converted to make it 31-17 with 10 minutes to play.
A thrilling end to the game as Brumbies catch Crusaders napping
However, the Brumbies struck two minutes later when Banks finished off a sublime attack from inside their half. Banks’ try cut the gap back to seven after the conversion.
Enari was sin-binned with a minute to play after several cynical infringements in the red zone. The ACT side used the man to their advantage.
Several phases of bashing at the opposition’s line paid off when Valetini found space in the wide channel to reach over and score.
There was no fairytale ending for the spirited Aussie side because Lolesio, born in Auckland, pulled his game-levelling conversion just wide of the lefthand post.
Despite this, the Brumbies players swamped their young standoff in a show of appreciation for his superb display.
It was not pretty for Robertson’s charges, but a win is a win, however fortunate.
Final Score: Crusaders 31 (19) Brumbies 29 (7)
Tries – Blackadder, Mo’unga, Havili, O’Connor, Grace
Con – Mo’unga (3)
Cards – Enari (Yellow, 79′)
Tries – Sio, Simone, Banks, Valetini
Con – Lolesio (3)
Referee: Paul Williams
Assistant Ref 1: James Doleman
Assistant Ref 2: Dan Waenga
TMO: Glenn Newman
15 George Bridge, 14 Manasa Mataele, 13 Braydon Ennor, 12 David Havili, 11 Leicester Fainga’anuku, 10 Richie Mo’unga, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Cullen Grace, 7 Tom Sanders, 6 Ethan Blackadder, 5 Samuel Whitelock, 4 Mitchell Dunshea, 3 Michael Alaalatoa, 2 Codie Taylor (captain), 1 George Bower
Replacements: 16 Brodie McAlister, 17 Tamaiti Williams, 18 Oliver Jager, 19 Scott Barrett, 20 Brendon O’Connor, 21 Ereatara Enari, 22 Fergus Burke, 23 Sevu Reece
15 Tom Banks, 14 Solomone Kata, 13 Len Ikitau, 12 Irae Simone, 11 Tom Wright, 10 Noah Lolesio, 9 Ryan Lonergan, 8 Rob Valetini, 7 Rory Scott, 6 Henry Stowers, 5 Nick Frost, 4 Darcy Swain, 3 Allan Alaalatoa (captain), 2 Folau Fainga’a, 1 Scott Sio
Replacements: 16 Lachlan Lonergan, 17 Harry Lloyd, 18 Tom Ross, 19 Tom Hooper, 20 Luke Reimer, 21 Issak Fines-Leleiwasa, 22 Reesjan Pasitoa, 23 Mack Hansen