Crusaders 33 Brumbies 3
Richie McCaw delivered a timely reminder of why he is the All Blacks captain-in-waiting as the Crusaders powered away from the ACT Brumbies 33-3 here tonight to take the top seeding into next week's Super 14 rugby semifinals.
While five-time Super 12 champions, the Crusaders, will end the first Super 14 regular season atop the standings, the Brumbies' qualification is in limbo after they conceded three tries to the rampant hosts in the final nine minutes at Jade Stadium.
What started as a dour tactical battle ended in the worst possible way for the Brumbies, who may yet concede fourth place to the Sharks or the Bulls.
The Sharks need to beat the Western Force by at least 10 points in Durban tomorrow morning (NZ time) and score four tries to move past them. If they can't do it, the Bulls will have their chance, also requiring a bonus point against the Stormers on Sunday morning at Cape Town along with a 26-point winning margin.
If neither side can manage it then the Brumbies will return to Jade Stadium next week for a semifinal but it will take a dramatic turnaround in fortunes to reverse the result.
The Crusaders dominated the first half but could only take 9-3 lead to the break. And it was only 12-3 after 70 minutes before reserve hooker Corey Flynn, prop Campbell Johnstone and reserve flanker Tanerau Latimer all crossed, the latter a contender for try of the season.
Without suspended halfback George Gregan and injured second five-eighth star Matt Giteau, the Brumbies were content to play a conservative style, in a clear tactic to ensure the score didn't blow out.
It worked for most of the match but they appeared run off their feet in the closing stages.
McCaw, widely expected to be named All Blacks captain tomorrow morning, led by example and was at the heart of a muscular Crusaders forward effort which proved decisive. They dominated the set pieces and eventually wore their tackle-weary opponents out through persistent pressure at the breakdown.
Playing his first game for three weeks and wearing the No 6 jersey rather than his usual No 7 had little impact on McCaw's all-purpose game.
There would have been some shudders among the national selectors when he went down clutching his shoulder early in the second half but the Crusaders skipper played on with little evidence of pain.
The pack's endeavour allowed first five-eighth Daniel Carter to control proceedings with a mix of long and attacking kicks. He became an increasing threat with ball in hand as the game wore on.
Cool weather and greasy underfoot conditions turned the match into a kick-fest, with neither side prepared to take undue risks inside their own territory against water-tight defences.
There were an enormous number of lineouts, where the Crusaders had an edge but their possession was often lost at the breakdown at the hands of champion Brumbies snaffler George Smith, like McCaw playing out of position at No 8.
Carter landed three first half penalties to one from Brumbies skipper Stirling Mortlock.
A fourth Carter penalty soon after the break was followed by a long period of Crusaders dominance, camped for large chunks in the Brumbies quarter.
However, it took until the 71st minute before the Brumbies line was finally breached.
Carter towed a loose ball ahead, forced a turnover and created a sizeable overlap from which Flynn ran over unopposed.
Johnstone crossed for a rare try from another overlap before the Crusaders ended the game on a high, sweeping 70m through eight pairs of hands, the last of which was Latimer's.
Mortlock was resigned to waiting and hoping they could still qualify after their late collapse.
"It really stung us. We were hoping to really up the ante in the second half but unfortunately they did," Mortlock said.
"Unfortunately now we're in the lap of the gods. Hopefully the Force can help us out."
McCaw was delighted with how his team finished off the game.
"We said this week we didn't want to use the travel as an excuse," he said.
"For the last 20 minutes the boys threw everything at it and it paid off."
He said breaking down the Brumbies was always a difficult task and it was no different tonight, even though they were missing some important figures.
"People talk about key players being out but they must have good systems because nothing much changes. They certainly threw everything at us for the first half of the game anyway."
McCaw said a home semifinal, and possibly final, would guarantee nothing in coming weeks.
"It's great to play in front of your home crowd and everything's familiar.
"But it is just a rugby field and you still have to do the business."
Crusaders 33 (Corey Flynn, Campbell Johnstone, Tanerau Latimer tries; Daniel Carter 4 pen, 3 con)
Brumbies 3 (Stirling Motlock pen).