With a World Cup year in the rearview mirror, plenty of All Blacks moving on and a high-profile player move, the New Zealand conference will again make for compelling viewing this Super Rugby season.
The Canterbury Crusaders, the table-topping and two-time defending Super Rugby champions, played eighth-placed and 2015 Super Rugby champions Otago Highlanders in Christchurch, where the home side hadn’t lost a game since last year.
There was action from the start. The Crusaders got a penalty in the second minute through Richie Mo’unga, but the Highlanders scored the first try of the play-offs in the 16th minute of the game through Sio Tomkinson, who scored on the back of Ben Smith making a break and a good set of passes from the Crusaders.
Josh Ioane concerted the try-making it 7-3 in favour of the Highlanders. Up until the 16th minute the visitors had won 20 rucks, but the Crusaders scored two tries in the 21st minute and the 27th minute through fullbacks David Havili and Richie Mo’unga respectively, with Mo’unga converting both.
A series of passes and a great assist from Mo’unga led to Havili’s try, and Mo’unga scored six minutes later through a Sevu Reece line break and a Whetu Douglas run, which he finished in style.
The home favourites led 17-7 before the Highlanders struck back in the 35th minute through a wonderful play by All Black halfback Aaron Smith and some silky passes leading to defensive break by Teihorangi Walden, who scored their second try, converted by Josh Ioane.
The score heading into the break was 17-14 in favour of the Crusaders.
Would the Crusaders suffer a shock defeat and be knocked out the quarter-finals? The game was tight, but scoring in the second half was one-sided. All Blacks flanker Liam Squire was sent to the bin for ten minutes in the 44th minute, and during that time the Crusaders scored with Whetu Douglas, who has had some wonderful games this season. Douglas scored on the back of a hooker Codie Taylor taking full advantage of a gap in the defence, allowing Whetu to make a powerful run over the try-line for the third try of the game. Michael Alaalatoa then scored in the 54th minute of the game. Both tries were converted by Richie Mo’unga.
The final nail in the Highlanders coffin came in the 68th minute when Richie Mo’unga scored his second try of the game off the back of a kick and chase. Mo’unga converted his own try to make the score 38-14 in favour of the Crusaders, and it remained that way until the end.
The Highlanders’ up-and-down season came to an end at the hands of the mighty Crusaders, who reached the semi-finals for the third season in a row. This leaves the Christchurch side two steps away from winning their tenth title and third in a row.
It was an emotional night all round or the visitors, with All Blacks fullback Ben Smith having played his last game for his beloved Highlanders.
The stars for the Crusaders was Richie Mo’unga, Whetu Douglas, David Havili, Kieran Read and the ever-dependable flanker Matt Todd.
Mo’unga made 17 passes, 11 runs for 64 metres, two clean breaks and one try assist, and he beat two defenders, made four tackles, scored two tries, didn’t miss a conversion and scored 23 points for the game.
Whetu Douglas scored one try, beat one defender and made one try to assist, three passes, seven runs for 11 metres, one clean break and seven tackles.
David Havili scored one try, nine passes, nine runs for 49 metres, two clean breaks and four tackles and beat five defenders.
All Blacks captain Kieran Read made nine runs for 39 metres, one offload, eight passes and five tackles. The ever-dependable Matt Todd made ten tackles, six passes, seven runs for 29 metres and three offloads.
The men from Christchurch have reached the semi-finals for the third season in a row and will be aiming for a third title in a row and tenth overall. They’ll play the Hurricanes after they beat the Bulls on Saturday night.