CHRISTCHURCH – The Crusaders overcame a spirited Sunwolves and stormy weather to pull off a 33-11 victory with three late tries in their Super Rugby clash in Christchurch on Saturday.
The bonus-point win moved the Crusaders to the top of the New Zealand conference while the Wellington Hurricanes have a bye this weekend.
But it was a hard-fought win as the bottom-placed Sunwolves, who conceded 50 points to the Crusaders a year ago, played above themselves and held the defending champions to 14-11 until 15 minutes into the second half.
But once Ryan Crotty scored his second try to stretch the lead to 21-11, the Crusaders moved up a gear and were in charge for the final quarter.
There were six tries scored, five to the Crusaders, in a match that for much of the time was an arm wrestle as periods of thunder, lightning, torrential rain and occasional hail restricted efforts to produce a free-flowing game.
"It made it slippery, especially when the hail came down, and it probably took us too long to adjust," captain Matt Todd said of the unconvincing Crusaders performance.
"They made us work for every point we got.
"We had to defend our line at times, and then we built some phases to get some points late which was pleasing."
In prime conditions at the start of the game, the Crusaders had the Sunwolves in immediate trouble with two tries in the first eight minutes.
Mike Delany put Crotty over in the first minute and the Crusaders' forward power delivered a try to Matt Todd from a lineout drive.
The Sunwolves enjoyed a brief period on attack which resulted in Michael Little scoring in the corner before the heavens opened up reducing the game to a kick fest for 10 minutes.
By the time the storm eased the Sunwolves were energised and their constant harassment forced the Crusaders into handling errors and kept them scoreless for the remainder of the half.
The Sunwolves continued to pile on the pressure when play resumed, with two Hayden Parker penalties reducing the gap to 14-11 before the Crusaders' late rally with tries to Crotty, Manasa Mataele and Jack Stratton.
While the Crusaders now have six wins from eight games, the Sunwolves remain winless, but captain Pieter Labuschagne saw signs of improvement.
"We tried to put them under pressure and it actually went well until midway through the second half and then they just outscored us," he said.
"The weather helped a little bit as well."