Crusaders 20 Hurricanes 12

It may sound strange of a team who had won their previous 10 games but tonight was the moment the Crusaders truly became title favourites.

By edging the eagerly awaited encounter against a similarly dominant Hurricanes, Scott Robertson's side made their biggest statement of a season now hearkening back to the best Crusaders teams of old.

Only two sides in Super Rugby history have opened their campaign with 11 straight victories - the 2002 Crusaders and this year's unit. It would be some achievement for the latter to match the former's perfect season, given they still have three Kiwi derbies to come in the final four matches, but at times tonight they did appear unbeatable.

The Crusaders defence suffocated the life out of the Hurricanes. Photo / Getty
The Crusaders defence suffocated the life out of the Hurricanes. Photo / Getty

After working their way to the top of the table by punishing markedly inferior opposition, winning their last six games by an average of 32 points, in 80 brutal minutes in Christchurch the Crusaders met their match.

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Matt Todd's try eventually proved enough to earn a victory that made clear why some Kiwi players have groused at the idea of playing more derbies. It was a furious match, marked not by the dynamos dotting both backlines but the players with lower numbers on their backs.

And it was a match marked by defence. Suffocating, indestructible defence. Given all the plaudits that had been paid to the respective attacks, it was easy to overlook how good both sides also were at preventing points being scored, each conceding fewer than 200 in the opening 11 rounds.

That degree of parsimony that was on display throughout a frenetic clash, as two teams who had combined for 124 tries so far this season almost drew a collective blank.

While there was plenty of attacking ability illustrated, with tacklers often beaten and lines regularly breached, the covering defence was just too well-executed for the either try line to be continually crossed.

As a result, half-breaks were quickly snuffed out and attacking raids were summarily shut down, exemplified in the opening spell by brilliant desperation tackles from Cory Jane and Codie Taylor, both made from behind when a try seemed certain.

And, with no obvious way across the line, a pair of captains resorted to a tactic they had rarely employed this year - pointing at the posts. In fact, by slotting four penalties, Jordie Barrett exceeded the Hurricanes' total from their previous nine games.

The time spent on the tee also provided the players with a much-needed chance to catch their breath, with the lack of tries belying the heights the game was reaching.

Both sides had their flaws - the Crusaders committed 12 turnovers in the first half while the Hurricanes' discipline was often letting them down - but the faults were more readily a result of intensity than poor execution.

Seta Tamanivalu of the Crusaders passes to George Bridge. Photo / photosport.nz
Seta Tamanivalu of the Crusaders passes to George Bridge. Photo / photosport.nz

In the end it was appropriate, given the parity, for the only try to arrive from the one area in which one side had found an edge - the set piece. Initially it was their scrum that was ascendant and, after establishing some early pressure in the second spell, the Crusaders opted to build on it by turning down a shot at goal, soon rumbling across the line with an unstoppable lineout drive.

It was a fitting reward for the outstanding Todd and an appropriate way to decide a titanic tussle between what must now be indisputably the two best teams in the competition.

Crusaders 20 (M. Todd try; R. Mo'unga 5 pens)
Hurricanes 12 (J. Barrett 4 pens)
Halftime: 9-9