CHRISTCHURCH – Defending champions Canterbury Crusaders returned to form and secured a home final in Super Rugby Aotearoa Sunday with a 29-6 victory over the Auckland Blues in Christchurch.
After suffering two uncharacteristic losses in their past three matches, the Crusaders fired on all cylinders, scoring four tries to nil as they opened up an unassailable lead in the regular season.
The Blues's failure to secure even a bonus point means the Waikato Chiefs, who they play in the last round of the regular season next weekend, will fill be the other finalist.
The Crusaders, in search of a fifth consecutive title, have 28 points, to head the Chiefs (20), the Blues (15), Otago Highlanders (14) and Wellington Hurricanes (seven).
They led 12-0 at half-time, and after the Blues put points on the board with two penalties early in the second spell, the Crusaders emphasised their dominance with two further tries.
"After a couple of weeks which we haven't been proud of as a team, we showed in that performance tonight that was what we want," captain Scott Barrett said, adding the preparation had focussed on improving key areas.
"In the physical area, the collisions, having strong ball carriers. We just focussed on winning those regions."
The Blues created opportunities in the first half and were rewarded for their decision to play two specialist openside flankers with Dalton Papalii and Blake Gibson winning regular turnover ball.
Captain Papalii said he could not fault his side's effort.
"We think it's there but it's that extra support that we need to get better. You can't fault the effort but it's the execution we need to get better."
But they had problems retaining possession and when the Crusaders attacked, the tackling was frequently ineffective.
Crusaders and All Blacks fullback Will Jordan stepped his way around five defenders to give the Crusaders their opening try in the fourth minute.
The Blues, meanwhile, missed a handy penalty and Hoskins Sotutu ground the ball just short of the line when it looked as if he would score.
But when the Crusaders had chances, they produced points with a wide cut-out pass from David Havili sending Sevu Reece over for their second try.
A flurry of penalties at the start of the second half, two to the Blues and one to the Crusaders, had the home side ahead 15-6 which they extended at the three-quarter mark when opting for a lineout over a penalty and Codie Taylor forced his way over.
Reece set up the final try with a crucial turnover which Havili chipped over the lined and Jordan won the race for the ball.