Before the dancing could truly start for the Crusaders, there was the shimmy, the two-step, even the hot step. In beating the Blues 21-7 at Eden Park on Saturday night for their 13th Super Rugby title, the visitors turned to their famous Rolls Royce of a forward pack and their wondrous little No.10 Richie Mo’unga.
In his highly-anticipated head to head with All Blacks rival Beauden Barrett, it was Mo’unga who scored the knockout victory, although as mentioned he was helped hugely by a pack which destroyed the Blues’ lineout and hardly took a backward step on a cold and wet night in Auckland.
Finlay Christie’s converted try after 60 minutes gave the Blues real hope, and just as importantly it brought the crowd back into the contest, but there was nothing much more for the home side to give in an attacking sense, and Sevu Reece’s, after Pablo Matera’s exquisite kick through, killed it off.
That man Mo’unga had all the answers – even to questions the Blues couldn’t think of. Leon MacDonald’s men forged a brilliant record in putting together 14 straight victories but the home side, in front of a capacity crowd, couldn’t cope with the suffocating set piece and defensive pressure posed by the Crusaders.
Mo’unga had lieutenants all over the field, of course – outside him in the form of David Havili, who was truly on one defensively, as though he wanted to make a statement ahead of the first test against Ireland next month, and Jack Goodhue, who surprisingly wasn’t taken off for a head injury assessment after his clash with Roger Tuivasa-Sheck.
Goodhue wasn’t even penalised for the collision, justice the Crusaders’ fans would have believed, given Blues prop Nepo Laulala got the same treatment for his shoulder to George Bower’s head a minute earlier.
Still, it was odd that Goodhue, who fell back and hit his head on the ground, wasn’t examined more closely.
While the two incidents helped make the first half a stop-start affair, there was no doubt who was in charge. In avenging their round-robin defeat to the Blues in Christchurch this year the Crusaders have added to their incredible record under coach Scott Robertson, who has won a title every year since he took over in 2017.
Robertson has always said that his first against the Lions in Johannesburg was his most special – and most difficult – but this may go close because the Blues’ vaunted attacking weapons were stymied from the offset. That this was a masterclass of accuracy and execution on both sides of the ball may also help clinch it.
Sam Whitelock and skipper Scott Barrett were dynamite for the Crusaders, as was loose forward Tom Christie, with George Bower and Oli Jager not far behind.
For the Blues, neither Barrett nor Stephen Perofeta could spark anything because their pack couldn’t win the ball. Rieko Ioane was caught in a vice and Tuivasa-Sheck had a difficult evening. In their best first-half chance – a lineout on the Crusaders’ line – Whitelock simply stole it to defuse the pressure.
Wing Leicester Fainga’anuku had the Blues on tenterhooks every time he got the ball – and he twice went very close in that first 40, the second time providing enough momentum for halfback Bryn Hall to cross the line.
With Mo’unga beginning proceedings with a superbly struck dropped goal under penalty advantage, the Blues were under scoreboard pressure after 30 minutes, and their malfunctioning lineout – they lost eight of their own throws before 50 minutes was up – sent them further into a hole. It’s nerve-wracking kicking penalties into touch when there’s a big fear you’ll lose the ball.
In the end, it was regular skipper Dalton Papalii, recovering from appendix surgery, who made the Blues’ best attacking break of the night. On after halftime, Papalii scorched down the right and made the Crusaders’ defence look fairly hum drum; not an easy thing to do.
It put the visitors back on their heels and led to Christie’s try after he picked the pocket of the Crusaders’ scrum.
However, the visitors, through Mo’unga again, soaked up the time and pressure to wring the life out of the match until it was all over bar the breakdancing.
Crusaders 21 (Bryn Hall, Sevu Reece tries; Richie Mo’unga dropped goal, 2 pens, con)
Blues 7 (Finlay Christie try; Stephen Perofeta con)