WELLINGTON, New Zealand - Canterbury Crusaders sealed top spot on the Super Rugby ladder with a 45-22 win over Otago Highlanders in Christchurch on Friday. The result means no one can reach the defending champions on the overall leaderboard, guaranteeing them home advantage through the finals series as they chase their ninth title.
The Crusaders scored five tries to three, including a brace for George Bridge, extending their winning streak to 11 games and underlining their status as competition favourites. They were boosted by the return from injury of All Blacks captain Kieran Read and also celebrated Wyatt Crockett becoming the first player to reach 200 Super Rugby games.
It was the second heavy loss for the Highlanders after going down to Waikato Chiefs by an identical score last week. They are still likely to make the playoffs but are looking doubtful for fourth spot, which carries home advantage in the quarter-finals.
The Crusaders raced to a 12-0 lead in the first 15 minutes with two contrasting tries. Winger Bridge scored the first after the Crusaders worked the ball through 18 phases, starving the Highlanders of possession. The second came after Ryan Crotty made a run from deep within his own half, splitting the defence to set up a try for David Havili.
The Highlanders clawed one back when Luke Whitelock broke a tackle and offloaded to the on-rushing Tyrel Lomax for a converted try. Another to Ben Smith narrowed the Crusaders' lead to one point but the home team again edged ahead when Scott Barrett crossed just before the break to make it 25-17.
A poor Highlanders scrum after the restart allowed Richie Mo'unga to go on the charge and add the Crusaders' fourth try after outpacing Ben Smith with a kick and chase. Waiseke Naholo hit back immediately but Bridge scored his second when he scooped up a huge looping pass from Mo'unga out wide to seal the win.