Super Rugby

Majestic Mo’unga leads Crusaders to glory

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The Crusaders came from behind to beat the Highlanders 32-22 and claim the inaugural Super Rugby Aotearoa title at Orangetheory Stadium, Christchurch.

Inspired by the peerless Richie Mo’unga, the Crusaders sealed a first Super Rugby Aotearoa title and fourth Super Rugby championship in a row in the glorious Sunday sunshine.

A two-minute George Bridge brace saw the Crusaders overturn 10- and nine-point deficits as they fought back to beat a spirited Highlanders team, who once again crumbled in the last 20 minutes.

An irrepressible Mo’unga scored a try and was involved both of Bridge’s scores and assisted Braydon Ennor’s 75th-minute match-winner with another outstanding display at first receiver.

Bridge also set-up the 26-year-old first-five’s try in a game for the ages.

MVP Mo’unga, who was five from six, also collected 12 points from the kicking tee, while Will Jordan sent Bridge away for both the winger’s tries.

The Highlanders dominated for an hour until they ran out of gas.

They once again tired in the final quarter – as they did in the first Super Rugby Aotearoa meeting between the teams in round four at Forsyth Barr Stadium.

Tries from the towering Shannon Frizell, the opportunistic Jona Nareki and Michael Collins could not keep the Crusaders at bay.

Sio Tomkinson’s 66th-minute yellow card did not help matters, but the tide had already turned, and the visitors were on their knees.

The win was the Saders’ sixth on the bounce versus the Otago franchise and the first of those not won by 20 points or more.

The win gives the Christchurch outfit a record 11th Super Rugby title and a fourth for coach Scott Robertson, who has transformed the men in red into the world’s greatest club team.

A frenetic first-half saw the teams trade blows with stunning attacking rugby that saw the Highlanders take a slender four-point first-half lead.

It was end-to-end as both teams looked to counter-attack from deep. Each time one entered the other’s 22, a penalty was conceded at the breakdown.

The Crusaders’ scrum is operating at 100% in the tournament, while the Highlanders’ lineout is the best in Super Rugby Aotearoa.

Aaron Mauger’s men score 60% of their tries from the lineout, so the hosts contested all the set-pieces to stop the visitors at the source.

It was, however, a turnover that saw Mauger’s side get their first score.

Frizell, taking Aaron Smith’s deft pass, opened the scoring in the second minute after George Bridge got isolated and lost possession inside his 22.

The flanker, who was a powerhouse, led the tackle count with nine in the first stanza, timed his run (and Smith’s now famed double shuffle) to perfection to crash over.

Ioane added the extras.

Super Rugby Aotearoa Round Nine Video Highlights: Crusaders versus Highlanders at Orangetheory Stadium, Christchurch 

It was all Highlanders, who went close again. However, they were kept out by some good work at the breakdown by the hosts.

Then someone lit the blue touch-paper in the 13th-minute when Mo’unga finished a sublime counter-attack that started deep inside the Saders’ half.

Sevu Reece found space down the righthand touchline after some good work by Bridge. Reece charged into the opposition’s half before finding Bryn Hall on his inside.

Hall played a quick pass to the supporting Bridge, who put Mo’unga away under the posts.

The first-five converted his try to level the scores.

Ioane had a chance to put the Dunedin men back in front, but his penalty glanced the left-hand post.

Ioane did, however, get another shot a minute later. This time, his kick was perfect, and the visitors led 10-7 early in the second quarter.

Two minutes later – and against the run of play – Nareki intercepted Sam Whitelock’s loose pass and bolted 75 metres, outsprinting Reece, to score in the corner.

Ioane slotted the touchline conversion to open up a two-score lead.

Crusaders consolidate with two late Mo’unga penalty goals to stay in touch.

The 26-year-old playmaker reduced the gap to seven on 29 minutes with a penalty in front of the posts as the home team looked to keep the scoreboard ticking.

Bridge, Jack Goodhue and Ennor combined down the left-hand touchline after a wayward Aaron Smith kick.

Goodhue chose the wrong option, but his side won the penalty. Mo’unga, who up ’til now had scored all his team’s points, made it 13-17 as the teams went into the shed.

Both teams went close after the break, but some superb cover defending did for each.

Hall left the field mortified a minute after his nonchalance cost him, and his team, a certain try.

Another counter-attack came from a break and no-look pass from Mo’unga to Will Jordan, who drew a defender and played Hall, off his shoulder, but the halfback could not finish.

Josh McKay, who came flying out of nowhere, chased down Hall, who dropped the ball over the line when it looked easier to score.

Hall got subbed straight afterwards.

It took 15 minutes after the interval before the first points were eventually scored. It came from some more magic by Josh Ioane and Dillon Hunt in the build-up.

The Crusaders, reeling at the pressure, conceded a penalty-advantage that allowed Smith to keep probing on the goal-line.

The quick-ball, and intensity of the Highlanders’ forward’s cleaning out of the rucks, led to Collins crashing through two defenders to increase his team’s lead.

The game changed in the space of two minutes as the defending champions showed their quality.

On 62 minutes, Bridge finished off a sweeping attack after the Highlanders failed to clear their lines.

Goodhue sucked in two defenders, popped to Jordan, who drew his man and sent Bridge away in the corner.

Mo’unga split the uprights to make it 20-22.

Then straight from the restart, Robertson’s men did what they do best: go straight down the field, almost 100 metres to take the lead.

Luke Romano sucked in two defenders and offloaded to Mo’unga on his shoulder. The flyhalf burst into the opposition’s half before combining with Jordan.

The fullback raced to the try-line before sending Bridge away for his second in as many minutes.

Things went from bad to worse for the Highlanders.

During the build-up to the try, Tomkinson knocked out Oliver Jager with an elbow and was rightly sin-binned before the missed conversion.

Ennor provided the coup de grace with four minutes to play as the three-time defending champs became champions of both the southern hemisphere and New Zealand.

Final Score: Crusaders 32 (13) Highlanders 22 (17)

Scorers

Crusaders
Tries – Mo’unga, Bridge (2), Ennor
Pen – Mo’unga (2)
Con – Mo’unga (3)
Drop –
Cards –

Highlanders
Tries – Frizell, Nareki, Collins
Pen – J. Ioane
Con – J. Ioane (2)
Drop –
Cards – Tomkinson (Yellow, 66′)

Match Officials
Referee: Paul Williams
Assistant Ref 1: Mike Fraser
Assistant Ref 2: Brendon Pickerill
TMO: Ben O’Keeffe

Teams

Crusaders

15 Will Jordan, 14 Sevu Reece, 13 Braydon Ennor, 12 Jack Goodhue, 11 George Bridge, 10 Richie Mo’unga, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Whetukamokamo Douglas, 7 Tom Christie, 6 Tom Sanders, 5 Quinten Strange, 4 Sam Whitelock, 3 Michael Alaalatoa, 2 Codie Taylor (captain), 1 Joe Moody

Replacements: 16 Andrew Makalio, 17 George Bower, 18 Oliver Jager, 19 Luke Romano, 20 Sione Havili, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 Brett Cameron, 23 Leicester Fainga’anuku

Highlanders

15 Mitch Hunt, 14 Josh McKay, 13 Michael Collins, 12 Sio Tomkinson, 11 Jona Nareki, 10 Josh Ioane, 9 Aaron Smith (co-captain), 8 Marino Mikaele-Tu’u, 7 Dillon Hunt, 6 Shannon Frizell, 5 Jack Whetton, 4 Pari Pari Parkinson, 3 Siate Tokolahi, 2 Ash Dixon (co-captain), 1 Ayden Johnstone

Replacements: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Daniel Lienert-Brown, 18 Jeff Thwaites, 19 Manaaki Selby-Rickit, 20 Teariki Ben-Nicholas, 21 Folau Fakatava, 22 Ngane Punivai, 23 Jesse Parete

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