A 28-point masterpiece from Richie Mo’unga piloted the Crusaders to a statement 43-27 Super Rugby Aotearoa victory over the Blues at Eden Park on Sunday.
Mo’unga was simply superb as he slotted all nine of his shots at goal and added a five-pointer as the Crusaders extended their unbeaten start to the season to four, and their competition points haul to 18. It was the Blues’ first defeat in three outings and leaves them with plenty to think about after once again being taught a lesson in clinical football by the defending champions.
This was the Crusaders’ 13th straight victory over the Blues and their seventh on the bounce on Eden Park as they soaked up a heap of pressure in the first half and dictated play superbly over the run home. On the strength of this they are going to take some stopping in their bid for a fifth straight Super title.
Mo’unga’s imprint was all over the match, both with the boot and ball in hand, but he had plenty of support. Codie Taylor was once again in top form in the forward tussle, with a try and another outstanding all-round effort.
Ethan Blackadder, skipper Scott Barrett, prop Michael Alaalatoa and openside Sione Havili were all excellent up front for the victors, while Will Jordan, Jack Goodhue and Sevu Reece stamped their mark on proceedings in the backline.
The Blues toiled hard, and when they review this match will realise they are not a million miles from the standard being set by the Crusaders.
The Ioane brothers and Caleb Clarke ran hard all game for the home side, Bryce Heem had a pretty decent debut with ball in hand and Hoskins Sotutu continues to make an impact. But the Blues were guilty of failing to make their dominance count in the opening 40 and paid the price for that.
The Crusaders soaked up a heap of first-half pressure but lived up to their billing as the masters of efficiency when they turned their scraps of possession into a 17-8 halftime lead, courtesy of a two tries to one advantage.
The Red and Blacks, led by the masterful Taylor in the form of his life (he nailed nine first-half tackles, without a miss, and scored his competition-leading fourth try of the season), gathered points from their first three visits into the Blues’ 22 and punished their hosts severely for almost every misstep they made through the first 40.
The Blues dominated everywhere but on the scoreboard through the first half, winning 63 per cent possession, 62 territory and forcing the Crusaders to attempt more than twice as many tackles (83 to 34).
But those clinical Cantabs struck almost every time they made it into the Blues’ red zone, Jack Goodhue notching their first try in the 10th minute when he did very well to win the race to a Bryn Hall grubber and Taylor doubling the tally in the 32nd minute when he finished a superb lineout-drive to plunge the Blues into that nine-point halftime deficit.
The Blues looked dangerous throughout the opening stanza, but had just the single try to openside flanker Blake Gibson to show for it when he did well in the 20th minute to power over in the left corner after a questionable transfer from Caleb Clarke was cleared by the TMO who was not letting the optics fool him this week.
The balance of play was much more equitable in the second half, though the Blues just could not make the move on the scoreboard they needed.
Replacement hooker Kurt Eklund struck twice in the second spell to keep the Blues in the hunt, but four consecutive Mo’unga penalties kept the Crusaders’ lead intact.
Then Mo’unga struck with a magical piece of footwork in the 69th minute to put the visitors out to 36-20, and from there it was always going to be too far back for the Blues.
Sotutu notched an excellent try off a brilliant Tom Robinson offload to close the deficit to nine late, but a yellow card for Ofa Tu’ungafasi and a late Reece try ensured the Red and Blacks walked off the field with a convincing winning margin to match their performance.
Crusaders 43 (Jack Goodhue, Codie Taylor, Richie Mo’unga, Sevu Reece tries; Mo’unga 5 pens, 4 cons), Blues 27 (Blake Gibson, Kurt Eklund 2, Hoskins Sotutu tries; Otere Black pen, con; Harry Plummer con). Ht: 17-8.