WELLINGTON - The Crusaders downed the Western Force 29-21 in Christchurch on Friday but were frustrated that a late try to the visitors cost them a potentially vital Super Rugby Trans-Tasman bonus point.
The Crusaders scored five tries to three against a much-improved Force, who refused to give up and were rewarded when Jordan Olowofela crossed the line in the final minute.
The result puts the Crusaders at the top of the table but the lack of a bonus point could allow the Auckland Blues and Wellington Hurricanes to edge ahead of them in the race for a berth in the final.
"It's been a bit of a theme in the last couple of games leaking late points and that one really hurts, especially when it's tight at the top of the table," Crusaders skipper Scott Barrett said.
"We were aware of what the Force were going to bring -- niggle, some stuff at the breakdown -- they certainly challenged us and probably stopped a bit of our flow."
The Crusaders rested a number of top stars including Richie Mo'unga, Sam Whitelock and Sevu Reece, meaning they lacked some of their usual attacking fluency.
The Force took the lead after three minutes when Toni Puli burst down the wing and sidestepped the Crusaders defence for a try.
Manasa Mataele hit back for the Crusaders, scoring off a perfectly weighted grubber kick from Braydon Ennor.
Fullback Will Jordan gave the hosts the lead after some slick passing from the Crusaders backline and Whetu Douglas added a third from a lineout drive to make it 17-7.
Ollie Callan kept the Force in touch, as the visitors patiently worked the ball through 10 phases but the Crusaders scored a fourth through Sione Havili Talitui to make it 24-14 at the break.
Jordan notched his second shortly after the restart before a sustained period of Force pressure tested the Crusaders' defence.
The West Australians scuffed a number of chances but Olowofela broke through late to deny the bonus point.