Blues are Super 12 champs

9.15pm

BLUES 21 CRUSADERS 17

UPDATE - Carlos Spencer, a certainty for the All Blacks to be announced on Monday, marshalled the Blues to win back the Super 12 rugby title after five seasons tonight.

They beat defending champions, the Crusaders, 21-17 in the final before a home crowd of 45,000 at Auckland's Eden Park to win the southern hemisphere competition for the third time since its inception in 1996.

The Blues had dominated the competition and the All Blacks in the first two Super 12 seasons before a barren run when the Crusaders won the title four times, three years in succession from 1998.

The Crusaders, who won back the title from the Brumbies last year, scored three tries to two tonight.

But they failed to take advantage of the 10-6 halftime cushion hooker Mark Hammett had provided with two fine tries.

In the final analysis however Spencer's 11 points from three penalty goals and a conversion made the difference on the board.

He directed the Blues superbly and whenever his team came under pressure in the first half he allowed them breathing space with long touch-finders.

Both Crusaders kickers Daniel Carter and then Andrew Mehrtens, who came off the bench just before halftime, missed goalkicks that would have made the difference. Their late charge for victory was rewarded with a try to winger Caleb Ralph, but by then the Blues were home.

Spencer, perhaps the competition's most influential player this year, said the younger players in his team deserved most credit for their magnificent season in which they lost just one game -- to the Highlanders.

"We've got a young bunch of guys who did brilliantly this year, they deserve this win tonight," he said.

"Before the game they were pretty excited and it showed in their performance.

"They got some good years ahead of them."

Spencer said his team's composure was vital tonight.

"We weren't overly worried when Hammer (Hammett) gave them a lead. We knew if we maintained our composure we'd get through, and we did.

"We knew it would be a low-scoring game. We held them off our line for a long time when they became desperate in the end. We let them in once but by then we knew we had them."

Spencer said beating the Crusaders gave his players real satisfaction given the rivalry between the two sides and the way the Crusaders had set the standards over the previous four seasons.

The Blues wrested the match from Canterbury during the first 25 minutes of the second half when they scored tries through fullback Doug Howlett and flanker Daniel Braid.

They then resisted intense and protracted Crusaders pressure through the final quarter of the match.

Spencer dropped a pass from his halfback David Gibson which saw Hammett swop on the ball and score his second try just seconds from halftime.

But Howlett gave the Blues the lead, by a single point, with his try in the fifth minute of the second half. Gibson penetrated the close defence on the right of an attacking ruck and fed centre Mils Muliaina who freed winger Rico Gear near the touchline.


Gear turned the ball back infield and Howlett, arriving at pace in support, crossed untouched.

Canterbury were unwilling to surrender the title without a fight. They relentlessly battered the Auckland line in the dying minutes of the match and twice went close to scoring, but were hurled back by the defence.

Crusaders second five-eighth Daniel Carter was put into space but lost the ball over the goal line and fullback Leon MacDonald made a desperate bid for the left-hand corner but was driven out of play by Howlett's courageous tackle.

Ralph then scored, almost anticlimactically after sustained pressure, but his try, in the 77th minute, came too late.

- NZPA

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