Beauden Barrett's return can't come quickly enough for the Hurricanes.
They've managed to squeeze through the past three games without their All Black pivot but his calm influence was sorely missed during their 35-18 loss to the Crusaders in Nelson tonight.
Youngster Otere Black, who made a strong impression in his starting debut against the Blues last week, wasn't able to control the game as he may have liked, while utility James Marshall ran the cutter for the final 20 minutes.
It was a match where the Hurricanes could have locked up top spot on the ladder, securing home advantage for the playoffs, but their basics let them down. In turn, the Crusaders delivered one of their best performances of the year.
The victory allowed the Crusaders to keep their season alive, although they continue to rely on other results falling their way if they want to make the playoffs.
Finals football is something the league-leading Hurricanes will be involved in but they will need to collect further competition points from their remaining two games — against the Highlanders and the Chiefs — to ensure they will play at Westpac Stadium in the knockout stages.
Barrett is scheduled to return against the Highlanders in Napier next week and Hurricanes coach Chris Boyd will hope his knee has healed.
The Crusaders had the better of the opening 40 minutes tonight as they cashed in on some damaging runs from wing Nemani Nadolo.
The giant Fijian bumped off Marshall with ease as he laid on the opening try for Mitchell Drummond, while Dan Carter, back in the No 10 jersey following an injury to Colin Slade, provided accurate goal-kicking.
The Crusaders' attack shuffles from side to side without vast creativity but when a man like Nadolo can bounce off defenders, it is a difference maker.
The Hurricanes' lineout deserted them — they won only one of their first six throws — and hooker Dane Coles attempted to make up for it with a try of his own as the Hurricanes fought back, while Crusaders centre Robbie Fruean spent time in the sin bin.
Within two minutes of the second spell starting, the Hurricanes added their second try when Ardie Savea finished off a sweeping breakout move.
But tries to Nafi Tuitavake, Matt Todd and Nadolo gave the Crusaders a valuable bonus-point win.
"We had to absorb a bit of pressure in the first half but I think that last five minutes on D is perhaps that bit that's been lacking all year," Crusaders captain Richie McCaw said after the game.
"I'm just proud of the way the boys held them out at the end."
A bad night for the Hurricanes was capped when outside back Matt Proctor left the field on a stretcher following a heavy collision while making a tackle.
"It was disappointing," Hurricanes captain Conrad Smith said. "We didn't turn up tonight and that's something we've done all season and I've been proud of the way we've played up until this point. But we were well off the pace and I think that was reflected on the scoreboard."
The loss was only the second of the season for the Hurricanes who were given a stark reminder that the chasing pack is closing in.
Crusaders 35 (Mitchell Drummond, Nafi Tuitavake, Matt Todd, Nemani Nadolo tries; Dan Carter 3 pen, 3 con) Hurricanes 18 (Dane Coles, Ardie Savea tries; Otere Black 2 pen, con) halftime: 16-8
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