The Crusaders have survived an almighty scare to make it three from three for Kiwi teams over their Aussie counterparts to start the trans-Tasman Super Rugby competition.
Their tense 31-29 win against the Brumbies in Christchurch on Saturday night was far from pretty, and required a missed conversion after the hooter from pivot Noah Lolesio, but it was a competition-opening win nonetheless.
Moments after No 8 Rob Valetini scored with time almost up, Lolesio dragged his difficult conversion attempt wide-left as the Crusaders escaped with four points in what was hooker Codie Taylor’s 100th match for the franchise.
They sure nearly coughed up a 31-17 lead, after loose forwards Brendon O’Connor and Cullen Grace crashed over in the final quarter to seemingly kick clear. Talk about a brave effort from the visitors.
Much like the mob the Reds sent out against the Highlanders in Dunedin on Friday night, this wasn't a full strength outfit from Canberra.
Fresh from a gut-wrenching defeat to the Reds in last week's Super Rugby Australia final, they were without a string of players, including halfback Nic White.
But they were right in the thick of it, sniffing their first win in Christchurch in 21 years, with 20 minutes left.
Down 19-7 at the split, they’d clawed their way back into the match through midfielder Irae Simone’s try, and a Lolesio penalty goal.
However, shortly after loose forward Ethan Blackadder was bundled into touch just short of the line, O’Connor, playing in his first game for the Crusaders since 2012, crashed over from a driving maul, and Grace powered over from close-range.
Brumbies fullback Tom Banks scored a scorching long-range try with seven minutes to play, before Valetini setup the crunch finish.
As Crusaders coach Scott Robertson said during the week, they’ve never played an easy game against the Brumbies. It was also always going to be a challenge to front up after the feverish high of winning Super Rugby Aotearoa last week.
The Crusaders also rested some players, including fullback Will Jordan, while captain Scott Barrett (illness) was scratched before kickoff and replaced on the bench by Quinten Strange.
The thrilling finish to the match certainly wasn’t a sign of things to come after the first half.
If the Addington air wasn’t so frigid some punters might have dozed off in the opening 20 minutes, given the stop-start nature of the contest.
The shambolic scrums were the primary factor, as the opening quarter was dominated by referee Paul Williams having a pig of a time attempting to sort out the respective front rows.
He eventually lost his patience after awarding a bevy of free kicks, and instead started dishing penalties, three to the Crusaders.
Brumbies halfback Ryan Lonergan’s hesitancy to feed the scrum didn’t help matters, especially as the Crusaders started getting a shunt on.
There was still something for the 11,000 odd punters to cheer for outside of Blackadder’s fourth minute try, starting with some dazzling Richie Mo’unga magic moments after Brumbies prop Scott Sio had bashed his way over the line to put the visitors 7-5 up after 27 minutes.
Much to coach Dan McKellar’s disgust, the Brumbies coughed up the restart, before Mo’unga made fools of three defenders from the resulting scrum to dash over.
Form midfielder David Havili, surely one of the first names in Ian Foster’s All Blacks squad later this year, then picked off a sluggish Lonergan pass to bolt in from 40 odd metres.
The Crusaders’ 19-7 halftime lead should have been more, only centre Braydon Ennor lost the ball attempting to dive over in the waning minutes.
Crusaders 31 (Ethan Blackadder, Richie Mo’unga, David Havili, Brendon O’Connor, Cullen Grace tries; Mo’unga 3 con) Brumbies 29 (Scott Sio, Irae Simone, Tom Banks, Rob Valetini tries; Noah Lolesio 3 con, pen). HT: 19-7