Crusaders 32
Highlanders 22

Make it four from four for Scott Robertson's Crusaders.

Since Robertson took over the head coaching role, the Crusaders have been the benchmark of Super Rugby and in the New Zealand-only incarnation, Super Rugby Aotearoa, it wasn't any different.

With a 32-22 win over the Highlanders in Christchurch this afternoon, the Crusaders clinched the title with a week to spare.

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In four seasons under Robertson's rule, including the six rounds of the pre-Covid-19 Super Rugby season, the Crusaders have won 59 of 69 matches, with just seven losses.

From the early days of the competition, Super Rugby Aotearoa looked like it was the Crusaders' to lose, having gone six rounds before dropping their first and only match of the competition.

The Crusaders celebrate with the title. Photo / Photosport
The Crusaders celebrate with the title. Photo / Photosport

However, the Crusaders didn't make things easy on themselves. Throughout the season they had made a habit of getting behind in games only to come storming home in the final quarter. Leading into the game against the Highlanders, 39 per cent of the Crusaders' points this season had been scored in that late period.

Such was the case against the Highlanders, with the Crusaders running in three tries inside the final 20 minutes to secure the title.

"The gas tank was on red for the last 20 minutes; what an effort to come back," said Robertson.

"We're really pleased. The last 20 minutes, some of our big players just stood up and the work to scramble on defence and create those opportunities for us to get back down to the other end was pretty special and worthy of a final."

The Highlanders couldn't have hoped for a better start in Christchurch. Kicking to the Crusaders to begin the match, the visitors found themselves with the first opportunity just moments later. After forcing a turnover at one of the first breakdowns, the Highlanders crashed over from close range through Shannon Frizell.

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Shannon Frizell of the Highlanders scores a try in the tackle of Richie Mo'unga of the Crusaders. Photo / Photosport
Shannon Frizell of the Highlanders scores a try in the tackle of Richie Mo'unga of the Crusaders. Photo / Photosport

It took a bit of luck for the Crusaders to find their way into the match, but they eventually did. After a frantic period of ball movement which featured netball passes and saw the ball hit the deck several times, halfback Bryn Hall showed his vison when he sent Sevu Reece away down the right wing.

Hall's skip pass across the face of two teammates saw Reece scoot off with no defender in sight. He was tracked down, but after a few passes Richie Mo'unga went in under the posts.

While Reece's side of the park was profitable for the Crusaders then, it was exploited soon after. Inside the Highlanders 22m and looking to shift the ball, a tip on pass from Sam Whitelock was picked off by Highlanders left wing Jona Nareki, who went the length of the field to push the Highlanders back into the lead.

Jona Nareki of the Highlanders dives over to score a try. Photo / Getty
Jona Nareki of the Highlanders dives over to score a try. Photo / Getty

With the sides trading penalties to see the visitors lead 17-13 at the break, there was still plenty on the line in the second half.

Possession became a vital element of the contest in the second period. The Highlanders weren't always asking questions of the Crusaders' defence, but with more possession they were forcing the Crusaders to make tackles.

While not immediately paying off, holes soon opened up in the Crusaders defensive line and mistakes were starting to find their way into the game.

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The Crusaders almost opened the scoring in the half through Hall, who was denied by a terrific defensive effort over the tryline by Highlanders wing Josh McKay to strip the ball away. McKay's efforts paid off at the other end in the 54th minute when Michael Collins was able to extend the lead with the Highlanders' third try of the game.

Josh McKay strips the ball free from Bryn Hall. Photo / Getty
Josh McKay strips the ball free from Bryn Hall. Photo / Getty

However, all season the Crusaders have made sure to remind their opponents that rugby is an 80-minute game and just as the clock clicked over past the 60-minute mark, something clicked once again for the hosts.

Running in two tries through left wing George Bridge within the space of three minutes, the Crusaders took their first lead of the game.

The Highlanders lost a man to the sin bin after Sio Tomkinson put an ugly hit on Crusaders prop Oli Jager – who was stretchered off the park – and the hosts took advantage of being a man up with a try to Braydon Ennor, to lock up another trophy.

Crusaders 32 (George Bridge 2, Richie Mo'unga, Braydon Ennor tries; Mo'unga 3 cons, 2 pens)
Highlanders 22 (Shannon Frizell, Jona Nareki, Michael Collins tries; Josh Ioane 2 cons, pen)
HT: 13-17