'It was a true final': Mo'unga delivers Robertson's Crusaders fourth straight title

Super Rugby - Aotearoa
by Christy Doran

Two tries in three minutes midway through the second-half to Test winger George Bridge has helped the Crusaders overrun the Highlanders in Christchurch to seal Super Rugby Aotearoa with one round to go.

The Highlanders led 22-13 after 60 minutes, but the Crusaders, as they so often do in the final quarter of a match, went to another level twice burning the visitors down the left-hand edge.

On both occasions playmaker Richie Mo'unga was pivotal in the Crusaders' attack turning it on, with Bridge left to a clear run at the tryline in front of 17,541 spectators.

Braydon Ennor's 75th minute try sealed the deal with the outside centre bursting onto a flat ball from Mo'unga from a scrum win.

With no finals system in place, the 10-point win sealed the Crusaders the title before they head to Eden Park to play the Auckland Blues next Sunday.

Their domestic win once again sealed the Crusaders' dominance after three consecutive Super Rugby titles before COVID-19 brought the 2020 season to an early end.

"We knew that this type of competition was a little bit different and it was never going to be easy, every game was a bloody tough battle," stand-in skipper Codie Taylor said.

"I'm a bit taken for words really. I'd love to acknowledge our fans, knowing that it was sell-out by Wednesday was bloody awesome and your support goes a long way. You've been here for all those years that we battled away and now we're holding our fourth trophy which is pretty special and a big part of that is the community."

Taylor said it was the full-squad mentality that made the Crusaders such a force.

"There's a lot of talk around culture, doing it for each other and the care, and, I think, everyone in this group really does care," the Test hooker said.

"It hasn't been an easy competition and this game was exactly that. The Highlanders came up here and put on a bloody good show and we had our backs against the wall but just a full credit to the full squad coming on and finishing the job. And I think that's the great thing about this team, anyone in this squad can deliver and that's what happened tonight."

All Blacks coach Ian Foster and selector Grant Fox were in the stands watching the win and will have left with the same question: What to do about Mo'unga and the Blues' prized recruit Beauden Barrett?

It's a healthy headache to have, but one that will cause much debate after the All Blacks' World Cup semi-final exit last year with Mo'unga wearing the No.10 jersey and Barrett at fullback.

The Highlanders would have been left frustrated after leading the game for more than an hour.

The Crusaders were far from their best and trailed 17-13 at half-time after a wasteful first-half.

Twice, too, the Highlanders made try-saving tackles in the second half to frustrate the Crusaders. On both occasions it was Josh McKay who was the hero, with his last-ditched effort to run down and force a knock-on from Bryn Hall after 46 minutes an unbelievable effort.

Ultimately though the Crusaders had too much class, making the Highlanders pay for not taking their chances in the second half.

Early on and it was all the Highlanders.

The men from Dunedin turned the ball over inside the first minute and seconds later big blindside flanker Shannon Frizell was crashing over just right of the posts.

Mo'unga hit back to level the scores at 7-7 after 13 minutes after finishing off a stunning try which started when Hall cut out three Highlanders and found Sevu Reece out wide, before the Test winger found his half-back inside him and in turn passed to his playmaker to score.

The Highlanders then scored 10 points in three minutes as Ioane's boot and an intercept to Jona Nareki saw the winger go coast-to-coast.

Two Mo'unga penalties saw the Crusaders keep in touch with the Highlanders at 17-13.

But Michael Collins had other ideas, scoring after 53 minutes to see the Highlanders to a nine-point lead.

It was then that the Crusaders stepped it up a gear, bringing on their replacements, including veteran Test lock Luke Romano who was pivotal in the come-from-behind effort, scoring three unanswered tries to win.

The Crusaders champions again.

So too Robertson, who has won four titles in as many years since taking over from Todd Blackadder. 

The champion coach said that the match was a fitting end to seal the title.

"It was a true final," said Robertson, who was edged out by Foster for the All Blacks coaching job to replace Sir Steve Hansen.

"It had everything in it. We were on the ropes for a lot of the game and we found a way to take a couple of moments, key guys stood up. Our hearts are with Oli Jager though, he had a big (head) knock before so you're dealing with elation and you're just making sure he's OK (too). It was a true final - it had everything."