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The Canterbury Crusaders smashed Australia's Western Force in the first half before claiming a bonus point 38-24 victory to secure fourth place in the final Super Rugby standings on Saturday.
The seven-time champions ran in tries through Israel Dagg, Sean Maitland, Andy Ellis and Matt Todd before the break to ensure a playoff back at Rugby League Park in Christchurch next weekend, most likely against South Africa's Bulls or Sharks.
All Blacks Dan Carter and Richie McCaw were withdrawn at halftime for the playoff campaign ahead and the Crusaders took their foot off the gas to allow the Perth-based Force back into the contest in the second half.
The Force scored a converted tries through Kyle Godwin, Alfie Mafi and Josh Holmes to give Wallabies lock Nathan Sharpe something to smile about in his 162nd and final Super Rugby match.
“We played with good intensity at the end of the first half and really had them on the ropes and it's a shame we couldn't continue it,” Crusaders skipper McCaw said in a televised interview.
“We're back to square one next week and we've ourself a chance in the finals so we'll see how that goes.”
The Crusaders started at a canter and the match was less than a minute old when fullback Dagg touched down in the corner and flyhalf Carter converted brilliantly from the touchline.
While there was room for debate about whether Dagg had got the ball down cleanly, there was no doubt about Maitland's effort 15 minutes later after the winger cut through the defence to score.
The fourth official was back in action after 34 minutes, however, and he confirmed the third try despite scrumhalf Ellis forcing his way over the line with what looked like a double movement.
The pick of the tries came straight from the ensuing kickoff with McCaw, playing at number eight, snaring the ball and sparking a sweeping move that flanker Todd finished off from a metre out.
Carter had time to kick his second penalty and send his team into the break 32-3 up with, barring an incredible turnaround, fourth place in the final standings in the bag.
There was to be no fairytale ending for Sharpe, however, although lively replacement back Godwin grasped his opportunity to impress with a good take of a low pass for his try and a neat inside pass to give fullback Mafi the second.
Crusaders flanker George Whitelock was sin-binned six minutes from time for slowing down Force ball and the visitors took advantage to score their third try from a neat back row move.
“It was very spirited,” said Sharpe. “But you can't give the Crusaders the start we gave them in the first half.
“I had my last game against the team I consider to be the toughest competition I faced over my career.” -Reuters