Christchurch (New Zealand) (AFP) - The Canterbury Crusaders secured their 13th consecutive Super rugby play-offs berth when a dash of Nemani Nadolo brilliance sealed a 21-13 victory over the Auckland Blues at AMI Stadium on Saturday.
In a bruising clash between two All Blacks-laden sides, the result was in the balance until the Crusaders lifted the pace of the game several notches for Fijian international Nadolo to score his second try seven minutes from time.
With Dan Carter's conversion it lifted the Crusaders from a narrow 14-13 lead to 21-13 ahead and left the Blues with the near impossible task of having to score twice in the closing minutes.
But having dominated territory for most of the second half, the Blues had no answer to the Crusaders withering closing burst. Not only could they not score again, their hopes of making the play-offs were reduced to a slim mathematical chance.
All Blacks ace Carter, playing his first full game of the year after a long holiday and then a brief cameo last week when the Crusaders were beaten by the Wellington Hurricanes, said it was a relief to get the win after defending for much of the game.
The Blues "really turned up to play. They're an extremely dangerous side with a lot of X factor and we really worked hard on defence to make sure we nullified that," he said.
After an early exchange of penalties between Crusaders fly-half Colin Slade and the Blues Ihaia West, Nadolo scored the first of his tries when he deftly dotted down in the corner.
But a second attempt to put Nadolo over a few minutes later went spectacularly wrong when his Blues opposite Frank Halai gambled on not making the tackle and instead raced up to take an intercept pass and race 95 metres to score at the other end.
It was to be his last role in the game as he damaged an ankle in his solo length-of-the-field run and left the field as the Crusaders saw a potential 15-3 lead turn into an 8-10 deficit.
Further penalties by Slade and West saw the Blues turn with a 13-11 lead at half-time and although they dominated for long periods of the second half they were unable to breach the Crusaders defence again.
The Crusaders regained the lead by one point when Carter landed a handy penalty with 14 minutes remaining.
Carter was then on hand to put Nadolo over for his second try after replacement back Johnny McNicholl had carved through a tiring Blues defence.
The Crusaders hold a four-point lead in the packed New Zealand conference, with only six points separating the Otago Highlanders, Hurricanes, Waikato Chiefs and Blues.
The Crusaders play the Highlanders next week while the Chiefs play the Blues and the Hurricanes have a bye.