Crusaders 49
Sunwolves 14

It was far from pretty, but the Crusaders have claimed their place at the top of the New Zealand conference.

With the unfamiliar tag of curtain-raisers, a double from right wing Sevu Reece saw a depleted Crusaders side topple the Sunwolves 49-14 in Brisbane.

But for his solid performance with ball in hand, Reece also put his side under pressure when he was shown a yellow card for a deliberate knock-on just moments after reserve hooker Hugh Roach was red carded on debut for elbowing an opponent in the head.

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The Sunwolves tested the Crusaders while they had a two-man advantage; however the visitors' defence covered the gaps in the line well to keep their hosts from eating into the deficit.

Initially scheduled to be played in Tokyo, the match was rescheduled to be played in Brisbane ahead of the Reds' clash against the Bulls due to the threat of Covid-19 in Japan.

Without the likes of All Blacks Jack Goodhue, Richie Mo'unga, Scott Barrett and Codie Taylor in their squad, the Crusaders struggled for fluidity in their play in the early stages. The Sunwolves, whose final season in the competition just seems to get worse, showed up with some physical and stoic defence to hinder the Crusaders' advances.

The hosts finally cracked just before the 20-minute mark when the Crusaders found space, and with it the lead, through flanker Tom Christie out wide.

Down on the scoreboard but not in confidence after how they started the match, the Sunwolves hit back when a period of sustained pressure on the Crusaders line saw lock Ben Hyne cross from close range; Garth April's conversion levelling the score.

Defending well and testing the new-look Crusaders, the Sunwolves looked poised to sit level with the defending champions at halftime. However, Reece crossed for his first of the afternoon moments before the hooter to put that chance to rest.

After the restart, it took just two minutes for the Crusaders to extend their lead as Luke Romano crashed over the line. But as they did earlier in the match, the Sunwolves hit back to close the gap once more.

Dallas McLeod of the Crusaders is tackled by Rudy Paige. Photo / Photosport
Dallas McLeod of the Crusaders is tackled by Rudy Paige. Photo / Photosport

With 25 minutes remaining in the match, the Crusaders put their foot down. With tries to Reece and flanker Sione Havili, the Crusaders looked set to cruise to the final hooter.

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The Sunwolves did get a glimpse of hope when Roach was sent off just five minutes into his first Crusaders match, however were unable to capitalise and instead saw the Crusaders extend their lead and seal the win.

The Crusaders will now turn their attention to next week's local derby against the Hurricanes, however there is no guarantee the match will go ahead.

The immediate future of the competition was put in doubt earlier on Saturday when Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced all travelers entering New Zealand from abroad would have to self-isolate for 14 days due to the threat of the coronavirus.

For visiting teams, that period of self-isolation is not possible with the current schedule of the competition, and six matches in New Zealand would be affected in the next four weeks alone.

With the future of the competition in doubt, the Crusaders lined up in a guard of honour to clap the Sunwolves off the park in what could well be their last game in the competition.

Crusaders 49 (S. Reece 2, T. Christie, L. Romano, S. Havili, B. Ennor, F. Burke tries; B. Cameron 5 cons; Burke 2 cons)
Sunwolves 14 (B. Hyne, G. April tries; April 2 cons)
HT: 14-7

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