Patrick McKendry is a rugby and boxing writer for the Herald.

Rugby: Crusaders enhance champion credentials

Richie Mo'unga impressed for the Crusaders yesterday. Photo / Photosport
Richie Mo'unga impressed for the Crusaders yesterday. Photo / Photosport

A perennial question since their last title in 2008 has been when the Crusaders will win one again. The more pressing question might be: who will be the first team to beat them this season?

Their seven-try victory over the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein yesterday extended their lead at the top of the table and again highlighted their attacking ability. They appear to be a juggernaut gaining speed down an increasingly empty motorway.

The Bulls host them in Pretoria next Sunday, but it's likely that the seven-time champions won't be seriously challenged until they return to Christchurch to take on the Hurricanes a week later, a match in which tempers could fray given the defending champions' recent run of success against the red and blacks.

The Hurricanes, who had the bye this weekend and host a battle-weary Stormers next Friday, can comfortably match the Crusaders' offensive weapons; it is a match likely to swing more on defence, and on that front, Scott Robertson's men should also feel relatively confident.

Against the Cheetahs, the Crusaders back three of George Bridge, Seta Tamanivalu and David Havili were once again impressive, with left wing Bridge repeating his feat of last weekend against the Stormers by scoring a hat-trick, and fullback Havili notching a double.

The Cheetahs, dangerous as usual on the counter-attack, were constantly on high alert against the trio who were allowed to run free due to the work of the Crusaders pack and excellent navigational skills of first-five Richie Mo'unga.

They have lost All Blacks skipper Kieran Read to a broken thumb until after the international break and while Whetu Douglas, who stood in while Read recovered from wrist surgery, has moved to Italian club Treviso, the Crusaders have a good replacement in Pete Samu.

It was the way they created and finished chances which was perhaps the most impressive against the Cheetahs. They were possibly over-ambitious at times, particularly in the first half, but all their forwards are comfortable offloading and in second five-eighth Ryan Crotty the Crusaders have a player in form and constantly breaking the line.

"They were very clinical, they finished every opportunity," Cheetahs skipper Francois Venter said.

"Just when you think you've got them, they move the ball again. They had numbers in the wide channels and with their ability to offload, they put us under a lot of pressure."

The bonus point win, which allowed Scott Robertson's men to go four points above the Chiefs, was not without its issues for the visitors, however.

Apart from Read's injury, captain Sam Whitelock was sinbinned for the final 10 minutes, and subsequently cited over a a retaliatory elbow to the face of Cheetahs prop Charles Marais.

Whitelock struck out in frustration after being tackled in the air and, while he only grazed Marais, it was a piece of ill-discipline which should disappoint the lock, who has impressed this season with his leadership and consistency.

Mitch Hunt, who replaced Mo'unga for the final quarter, soon joined Whitelock in the bin for a ruck offence, meaning the Crusaders played the final three minutes with 13 players.

The almost constant blast of referee Federico Anselmi's whistle was a strange way for what was until that point a free-flowing match to end.

Crusaders 48 (David Havili 2, George Bridge 3, Richie Mo'unga, Mitchell Drummond tries; Mo'unga pen; 5 cons)

Cheetahs 21 (Raymond Rhule, Ox Nche, Sergeal Petersen tries; Niel Marais 3 cons)

Halftime: 22-7

- NZ Herald

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