Crusaders secure finals berth
July 5, 2014
Nemani Nadolo scored a brace of tries for the Crusaders
© Getty Images
The Crusaders have secured a Super Rugby finals berth while landing an almost fatal blow on the Blues in a tight affair at AMI Stadium.
The hosts scored tries early and late through Nemani Nadolo to extend their margin atop the New Zealand conference, but the Blues otherwise dominated possession and territory and looked likely to claim their second successive away victory with a 100-metre breakaway try from Frank Halai and a 100% kicking performance from Ihaia West.
The Crusaders can still be toppled from the top rung of the New Zealand ladder by the Highlanders, who play competition-leading New South Wales Waratahs in Sydney on Sunday, but they are now assured a wildcard spot in the semi-finals. The Crusaders host the Highlanders in the final round of the home-and-away season next week, while the Blues will host the Chiefs at Eden Park.
Dan Carter, who kicked the Crusaders back into the lead with a penalty goal 14 minutes from full-time, said after making his first post-sabbatical start that he "loved" being back. "You don't realise who much you miss it," said Carter, who played off bench against the Hurricanes last week in his first Super Rugby game since returning from his six-month sabbatical.
Crusaders 21-13 Blues (Australia only)
Blues captain Keven Mealamu said after his 150th Super Rugby match for the franchise: "The energy level wasn't there. And when you're playing a class side like the Crusaders it's about accuracy as well; we had a couple of mistakes that let the pressure off. Against a class side like this, it's not good enough. We gave it everything for 80 minutes ... we'll see what tomorrow brings."
The Crusaders lost All Blacks lock Sam Whitelock to a calf injury barely 30 minutes before kick-off, bringing Jimmy Tupou in to partner Dominic Bird, but they had key players Kieran Read, Owen Franks and Carter back in the starting XV and looked to play an up-tempo game from the opening whistle. That experience couldn't prevent lapses in accuracy, however, and the hosts' inability to build phases cost them in the first half.
Ma'a Nonu performed strongly for the Blues © Getty Images
Nadolo, back from international duty with Fiji, crossed for his eighth try of the season after 17 minutes, as the Crusaders shifted the ball wide. Openside flanker Matt Todd showed good vision and quick hands to give a pass that found Nadolo storming down the left, and the powerhouse winger showed excellent strength to barrel over in the corner. The Crusaders then butchered a certain try from close range two minutes later, when Andy Ellis had two unmarked players to his left only to loop a pass wide that sole Blues defender Halai pounced upon to sprint 100 metres for an intercept try. Colin Slade and West traded penalties, but two misses from the former just before half-time cost the Crusaders dearly.
The teams each struggled for momentum in the second half, with the ninth-placed Blues desperate for a win to keep their play-off hopes alive. They camped inside the Crusaders' 22 for much of the third quarter, but they couldn't breach the defence.
Slade left the field after Ma'a Nonu had crunched into the luckless playmaker, and Carter moved in from second five-eighth to his more familiar No.10 position and resumed kicking duties to slot the 66th-minute penalty that gave the Crusaders a 14-13 lead.
Five minutes later, the Crusaders' quick work at the breakdown gave them front-foot ball and Nadolo crashed over from close range to secure the victory and the assured finals berth.
Keven Mealamu has now played 150 Super Rugby matches for the Blues, and 160 overall © Getty Images
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