WELLINGTON – The Crusaders overwhelmed the Highlanders 38-14 Friday to storm into the Super Rugby semi-finals and reinforce their status as favourites for a third consecutive title.
The nine-time champions launched a second-half onslaught as they scored five tries to two, maintaining a daunting home record in Christchurch.
Their win sets up a semi-final in the South Island city next week against the winner of Saturday's clash between the Hurricanes and Bulls.
The Crusaders have not lost a playoff in Christchurch since Super Rugby launched in 1996 - a sequence of 22 matches - and are currently on a 28-game unbeaten run at home dating back to July 2016.
They were at full strength for the first time this season, boasting 13 All Blacks in their starting XV with a combined total of 520 Test caps.
The experience told as they built on a narrow 17-14 lead at half-time, pulling away from the Highlanders and keeping their opponents scoreless after the restart.
“Full credit to my boys, they really showed up,” captain Sam Whitelock said. “We had a great week, nailed the things we needed to nail, but we were pushed and the Highlanders were outstanding.”
Ahead of the fixture, coach Aaron Maugher bristled at suggestions the Highlanders were lucky to have secured the final playoff spot, saying they were itching to “have a crack” at their highly fancied neighbours.
He was as good as his word as the Highlanders dominated the first 20 minutes but failed to make the most of their opportunities.
The Crusaders went ahead with a penalty but received a scare when Highlanders lock Jackson Hemopo crossed the line, only have his try disallowed for a double movement.
Waisake Naholo also had two chances on the right wing and the Highlanders' forwards matched their vaunted opponents in the early exchanges.
Their pressure paid off when Tom Franklin stole a Crusaders lineout, setting up Sio Tomkinson for the game's opening try.
Fullback David Havili responded for the hosts after they patiently gained territory with a lineout drive.
What a game! We’ve won the Quarter Final, 38-14 over the @Highlanders. Next week we host the Semi Final, yes, here at home again 👊🏽 If you’re a Crusaders Club member or at the game tonight you can buy your tickets from tonight!! Check your emails 👍🏽 #finalsfooty— BNZ Crusaders (@crusadersrugby) June 21, 2019
The Crusaders backline then turned on a dazzling display of passing prowess, working the ball through six pairs of hands with lightning speed for a Richie Mo'unga try.
Teihorangi Walden kept the Highlanders in touch when he sidestepped Jack Goodhue for a try that cut the Crusaders' lead to 17-14 at half-time.
The visitors suffered a setback soon after the restart when flanker Liam Squire was sin-binned for a shoulder charge on Whetu Douglas.
The Crusaders capitalised on the one-man advantage with two tries during Squire's absence, one from a driving maul and the other off the back of a scrum.
Mo'unga's second try put the result beyond doubt with 11 minutes to go.
Agence France-Presse (AFP)