CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand (AP) — Flyhalf Richie Mo’unga kicked 14 points including a rare dropped goal and steered the Christchurch-based Crusaders to a 24-13 win over Hamilton-based Chiefs in the final of Super Rugby Aotearoa on Saturday and to a fifth Super Rugby title in as many years.
The Crusaders, who have now won 12 Super Rugby titles since the tournament’s inception in 1996, won the full, five-nation tournament in 2017, ‘18 and ’19 and have now won the New Zealand domestic tournament in each of the last two seasons.
The Chiefs pulled off one of the great form reversals in Super Rugby history to reach the final. They lost their first two matches this season to stretch their record Super Rugby losing streak to 11 games which included all eight matches in Super Rugby Aotearoa last year under British and Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland.
But they turned that around to reach the final on the back of five straight victories this year, including a 26-25 win over the Crusaders in round eight of the regular season.
The final hurdle was too much for the Chiefs, who won their latest of their two Super Rugby titles in 2013 and who faced a Crusaders team unbeaten in 25 Super Rugby playoff matches at home, including seven finals.
“I think it’s been a challenging 12 months and this season hasn’t been smooth sailing,” Crusaders captain Scott Barrett said. “But we’ve hung tough and it was an awesome effort tonight.
“We got down to 13 men tonight for a while and it was tough.”
The Crusaders led 15-13 after a first half which typified contemporary New Zealand rugby. It was frantic and contained moments of great skill but there was a lack of control and of discipline from both sides. Neither team was able to retain possession or establish a substantial territorial advantage, though the Crusaders dominated set pieces and the Chiefs appeared at times to be just hanging on.
The Chiefs were more competitive in the second half when they kicked deep and played more often in the Crusaders' half. But the match slipped away when they were unable to exploit a period of more than five minutes when the Crusaders were down to 13 men with hooker Codie Taylor and winger Sevu Reece were in the sin-bin.
Taylor received a yellow card for tackling Chiefs fullback Damian McKenzie in the air and Reece for a high tackle on replacement Ace Tiatia. The second offense was only brought to the referee’s attention by a captain’s referral.
In total, the Crusaders were understrength for almost 15 minutes, but the Chiefs managed only a penalty in that period while Mo’unga kicked a penalty for the home team and his first-ever dropped goal in Super Rugby.
Mo’unga was hugely influential in that period, staging several breakouts as the Chiefs persisted in kicking to him and the Crusaders’ dangerous back three.
That back three had already made their mark on the game as winger Reece and fullback Will Jordan scored first half tries which gave the Crusaders the upper hand.
Reece scored in the eighth minute when, after a lineout from a penalty, the Crusaders worked the ball quickly back to his right wing and he stretched out in tackles to just ground the ball on the line.
Jordan then scored in the 15th minute, dashing onto a rolling kick from center David Havili to claim the bounce and the try.
McKenzie, playing mostly at first receiver, scored a try in the 20th minute that kept the Chiefs in the match. The Crusaders defense swarmed the ball carrier and center Alex Nankivell was able to draw Reece off his wing before his back-handed pass put McKenzie on a long, angled run to the line.
All of the points in a muddled second half came from kicks and from Mo’unga’s ability to dictate the game at crucial moments.
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