AUCKLAND: The Canterbury Crusaders unleashed a mix of precision and power to beat the Auckland Blues 21-7 in the Super Rugby Pacific final in Auckland on Saturday and confirm their status as the competition's greatest team. A decider between two fierce New Zealand rivals that many predicted would be tight proved far from it as the Crusaders took command from the outset and bagged a 13th title.
Despite wet conditions, the visitors played with an accuracy that has been a hallmark of their enduring success, much to consternation of a full house of 42,000 at Eden Park. Precise tactical kicking, unflinching work at the breakdown and utter domination of the lineouts were at the heart of coach Scott Robertson's sixth title from his six seasons in charge.
Two of those, in 2020 and 2021, came under the Super Rugby Aotearoa internal format, with 10 titles having been claimed in the pre-Covid era. With his pack laying the groundwork, Crusaders five-eighth Richie Mo'unga's was able to dictate terms, as well as kick 11 points. Robertson said the plan to pressure the Blues from the outset was followed to the letter, giving space to Mo'unga, who he compared to four-time NBA-winning basketball star Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors.
"Richie Mo, what a player... he's Steph Curry for us," Robertson said. "We love him and he stood up for us again, just like in the last six finals. "That first 15 minutes, my lord. The pressure we wanted to put on the Blues, it happened. They just didn't get out of their half for a long period of time." The Blues, chasing their fourth trophy and their first since 2003, were considered strong contenders to halt the Crusaders juggernaut. They secured a rare win in Christchurch two months ago, midway through a 15-match winning streak to earn home advantage for the decider.
However, they squandered 10 of their 19 lineout throws and couldn't get enough quality possession to in-form playmaker Beauden Barrett, who was outshone by Mo'unga, his rival for the New Zealand No 10 Test jersey. Mo'unga said criticism that the Crusaders had been below their best for much of the season was accurate but they nevertheless used it as motivation.
"The Blues got one over us in round-robin. We wanted to embrace the feeling coming here, backs against the wall. That's when we perform at our best," he said. "We didn't want to be shackled by the occasion. To win six in a row, and to achieve it here in Auckland, it's pretty special." For all their early dominance, the Crusaders' lead was just 3-0 after half an hour, via a Mo'unga dropped goal.
He doubled the advantage with a penalty goal before the lead was stretched to 13-0 when scrum-half Bryn Hall popped the ball over the tryline off the back of a ruck on the stroke of halftime. Mo'unga's second penalty was followed by a lone Blues try, when scrum-half Finlay Christie darted across after the ball came loose from a scrum. It ensured the hosts wouldn't be the first team held scoreless in a Super Rugby final but they never threatened again and conceded a late try to Sevu Reece after failing to control a kick.
Barrett, the brother of victorious Crusaders captain Scott Barrett, said the outcome would sting for a Blues side who featured 10 players named this week in the All Blacks squad to face Ireland in three Tests next month. "We'd had a really good season and wanted to come here and do a job tonight so it's a tough one to swallow," he said. "We knew that we didn't fire a shot in the first half and we needed to look hard at ourselves and come up with some solutions. "We had no option but to throw everything at it but their defence and set piece was exceptional." - AFP