Super Rugby Pacific: Titleholders Crusaders show championship qualities in thriller over archrivals Blues

Fringe All Black Leicester Fainga'anuku has scored a try hat-trick, as the Crusaders got their Super Rugby Pacific title defence back on track with a 34-28 victory over the Blues at Eden Park.

Last year's finalists staged an thriller befitting their pedigrees, with the southerners seizing control in the moments either side of halftime, when the home side were reduced to 13 men and conceded two tries - both to Fainga'anuku - as they scrambled to cover the gaps in their defence.

Playing catch-up, the Blues twice crossed for what could have proved matchwinning tries, but had both ruled out, when replays showed the ball shaken loose in despairing goal-line tackles by Crusaders defenders.

Crusaders celebrate Ethan Blackadder's try against the Blues
Crusaders celebrate Ethan Blackadder's try against the Blues. Photo credit: Photosport

The Aucklanders struck first, when winger Mark Telea burst upfield and brushed off Crusaders first-five Richie Mo'unga to score, but they also suffered two early - and costly - setbacks when starting props Alex Hodgman and James Lay were forced from the field.

Their departure would later prove particularly costly.

In a freeflowing spectacle, fullback Fergus Burke put the visitors on the scoreboard and flanker Ethan Blackadder put them ahead 14-12 with a try from close range.

From a quick tap inside the 22, winger Caleb Clarke put the Blues ahead again, before second-five Roger Tuivasa-Sheck cut back against the grain for a 21-14 advantage.

Fainga'anuku grabbed his first try to bring his side within two points, before the game turned on its head in the moments before the break. As the Crusaders poured towards the goalposts, Blues prop Jordan Lay was penalised for cynically lying on the ball and dispatched to the sin bin.

Crusaders captain Scott Barrett immediately called for an attacking scrum, but because the Blues were out of replacement props, they had to bring on back-up hooker Kurt Eklund, forcing uncontested scrums and requiring them to jettison another player - fullback Stephen Perofeta, in this case - down to 13.

With halfback Finlay Christie making up numbers at the back of the scrum, the attacking side had the tryline at their mercy and gave Fainga'anuku an easy run into the left corner to snatch a 24-21 margin.

Even shorthanded, the Blues threatened to score after the restart, spending several minutes camped inside the Crusaders 22, but with only seconds remaining before reinforcements arrived, they lost the ball and Mo'unga found Fainga'anuku with a clever crosskick that saw him sprint away from Tuivasa-Sheck for his third try.

The Blues showed their courage with a try to Perofeta that brought them back within striking distance, helped by Beauden Barrett's perfect four-from-four goalkicking on the night. Mo'unga stretched the advantage to six points with a penalty, but a converted try would still seize victory.

Their luck changed, when Crusaders prop Kershawl Sykes-Martin was issued a yellow card, leaving his team exposed on their goal-line. Blues lock James Tucker appeared to have scored, but on review, the ball was clearly jolted from his grasp before he could force.

The home side mounted wave upon wave of attacks, but the red-and black line held firm, until Barrett kicked towards the right corner and No.8 Hoskins Sotutu gathered to plunge over. Again, replays showed he had not grounded the ball cleanly.

There was still time for two more raids, with the Crusaders now just hanging on, but veteran lock Sam Whitelock stole the ball from a ruck to stifle the first, then replacement midfielder Bryce Heems was held up in a maul, as the final siren sounded.

"We had the better of the first half, but the Blues really threw everything at us and we were probably lucky to get away with it in the end," admitted Scott Barrett.

"I think we played some good footy in that first half, but that second half, there's plenty for us to get better and we're excited by that."

After a mixed start to their their title defence - loses to the Chiefs and Fijian Drua, and one win over the woeful Highlanders - a 15-round heavyweight slugfest against their archrivals may have helped the Crusaders find their mojo again, as they improve to 2-2... the same record as their opponents.

They face another major challenge in top-ranked Aussies ACT Brumbies at Christchurch on Friday, while the Blues host Western Force at Eden Park.

Crusaders 34 (Burke, Fainga'anuku 3 & Blackadder tries; Mo'unga 3 conversions & penalty) Blues 28 (Telea, Tuivasa-Sheck, Perofeta & Clarke tries; Barrett 4 conversions)

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