CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand, Aug 9 – The Canterbury Crusaders needed their legendary storming finish to beat the Otago Highlanders 32-22 and claim New Zealand’s Super Rugby title with a game to spare in Christchurch on Sunday.
Three tries in the final quarter, two to George Bridge, secured their fourth successive Super title, but coach Scott Robertson immediately shut down talk of extravagant celebrations, citing the Liverpool experience of winning a championship before the end of the season.
“It’s a celebration with curfews tonight,” he said, as he also refused to perform the trademark breakdance he has produced after previous title wins.
“It doesn’t feel quite right. We haven’t finished the job yet. There’ll be another time for that.
“We’re very mindful that’s the awkwardness of winning it as we’ve done. We understand what Liverpool went through when they took the trophy early,” he said.
Liverpool were whipped 4-0 by Manchester City in their first game after securing the English Premier League with seven matches remaining, and Robertson warned the Crusaders would not ease up when the face the Auckland Blues in the final round next weekend.
“It doesn’t mean anything if we don’t do the job next week,” added veteran lock Sam Whitelock.
The little-fancied Highlanders led for the first 60 minutes against the Crusaders but could not hold back the red wave as the Crusaders took control in the final quarter — a period which has produced 40 percent of their points in the competition.
Bridge scored two tries in two minutes for the Crusaders to be ahead for the first time in the 62nd minute and Brayden Ennor cemented the win with a try five minutes from time.
– ‘We were on the ropes’ –
“It was a true final. It had everything in it. We were on the ropes for a lot of the game,” Robertson said.
“And bang, bang, you score two good tries and that was it.”
Crusaders won three Super Rugby titles in a row before the coronavirus crushed this year’s competition, replaced by New Zealand’s hastily-arranged domestic Aotearoa tournament between the country’s five Super Rugby sides.
The gutsy Highlanders had the better of the first half and were ahead 22-13 before the Crusaders put the hammer down.
The four-tries-to-three victory snuffed out the faint title hopes held by the Wellington Hurricanes and Auckland Blues and effectively ended the competition a week early.
It was the Highlanders who looked most like a champion side in the opening stanza.
Jack Whetton won turnover ball which paved the way for the opening try to Shannon Frizell in the second minute.
After a series of fumbles and costly turnovers, the Crusaders clicked in the 12th minute with a long cut-out pass from Bryn Hall to spark a long-range attack involving Sevu Reece, Hall and Bridge before Richie Mo’unga touched down.
But the Highlanders refused to lie down.
They came back with a Josh Ioane penalty and an 80-metre intercept try to Jona Nareki to open up a 10-point margin.
Two penalties to Mo’unga reduced the Highlanders lead to 17-13 at half-time.
A Michael Collins try pushed the Highlanders lead out to nine points before the Crusaders wrested control with their three late tries.