Defending champion Crusaders spark Super Rugby playoff hopes

Brumbies Rob Valenti runs at the defense during their Super Rugby game against the Crusaders in Canberra, Australia, Saturday, May 18, 2024. (Mick Tsikas/AAP Image via AP)

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — The Blues’ nine match winning streak in Super Rugby Pacific ended Saturday in unexpected circumstances and just in time to cause them concern before the playoffs begin.

The Auckland-based Blues took an 11-1 record to Christchurch where they faced the 2-10 Crusaders and were beaten 29-27, leaving them clinging to first place on points differential and re-igniting the Crusaders’ playoff hopes.

The Blues’ only previous loss came 10 weeks earlier, against the Wellington-based Hurricanes. The Hurricanes are now level on points with the Blues after edging the Hamilton-based Chiefs 20-17 on Friday.

The Hurricanes are well-placed to take over first place as they finish the regular season next weekend against the Dunedin-based Highlanders while the Blues take on the fourth-place Chiefs.

The defending champion Crusaders seemed a forlorn hope of reaching the playoffs as they struggled through their worst-ever season. Depleted by injuries and the loss of key players after last season, the Crusaders went six rounds before registering their first win, then another three weeks before beating the Melbourne Rebels.

That 39-0 win was the start of a tidal change for the Crusaders who lost narrowly but looked more competitive in matches against the Queensland Reds, Highlanders and ACT Brumbies and triumphed Saturday as players returning from injuries restored them to something like full strength.

The first half looked ominous for the Crusaders as the Blues drew ahead with two tries to All Blacks prop Ofa Tu’ungafasi. But a try right on halftime cut the Blues’ margin to three points and the Crusaders produced their best rugby of the season in the second half.

The Blues’ kicking game which had been effective in the first half degenerated in the second and they went away from the system which has been so successful throughout the season of driving through the middle of the field and breaking down opponents through multiple phases.

The win lifted the Crusaders within two points of eighth place with one round left before the quarterfinals. They face Moana Pasifika next weekend.

No-one would have welcomed the win more than Crusaders head coach Rob Penney who was already under fire when he was forced to apologize on Wednesday for using an obscenity to describe a reporter in a hot mic moment.

“It was really unfortunate, and I was really disappointed in myself,” Penney said after Saturday’s match. “Looking back, I thought there’s a distraction the boys didn’t need heading into a big game like this.

“I just didn’t want to be a distraction and I felt it potentially was. But it worked out okay today.”

The Blues looked title favorites before Saturday’s match which exposed old weakness, particularly a tendency to falter late in the season.

The Hurricanes also have matters to work on after their narrow win over the Chiefs, sealed by a 79th minute penalty. But they can point to the fact they are the only team to beat the Chiefs at home this season.

And, in a demonstration of foresight, they had prepared for exactly the scenario that played out in Hamilton.

“A winger being sin-binned, a red card or a yellow card to a hooker...then closing the game out were the three (scenarios ) we’ve done this week, which is a little bit scary I guess,” Hurricanes head coach Clark Laidlaw said.

The Hurricanes lost hooker Raymond Tuputupu to a red card in the eighth minute and winger Kini Naholo to a yellow card midway through the second half.

The Brumbies held onto third spot with a 53-17 win over the Melbourne Rebels and the Queensland Rebels are fifth after beating the Western Force 59-13.

The Highlanders sealed their quarterfinal place when they beat the Fijian Drua 39-3 on Sunday, moving up to sixth place.

The Drua are still in eighth place and have one last chance to clinch a place in the quarters when they play the Rebels in Lautoka next weekend.


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