WELLINGTON (Reuters) – The Canterbury Crusaders just about remained on course for a 10th Super Rugby title when they outlasted the Wellington Hurricanes 30-26 in a thrilling all-New Zealand semi-final in Christchurch on Saturday.
The double defending champions were made to work hard for their win but will now host Argentina’s Jaguares, who beat Australia’s ACT Brumbies 39-7 on Friday, in their 14th final next Saturday.
Winger Sevu Reece crossed twice for the home side but flyhalf Richie Mo’unga was again the standout performer for the Crusaders with a brilliant try and 15 points from the kicking tee.
“It’s always tough defending these boys,” said Crusaders skipper Sam Whitelock.
“Really happy, though, the boys stuck together and we got there in the end.”
Hurricanes centre Ngani Laumape also grabbed a brace and the visitors also had tries from winger Ben Lam and scrumhalf TJ Perenara as they came within an ace of ending the Crusaders’ 29-match unbeaten run at Christchurch Stadium.
“I’m proud of the effort because everyone was writing us off and we worked bloody hard but came up just short,” Hurricanes captain Dane Coles said.
“Proud of the ticker but gutted at the loss.”
The Crusaders looked to have one foot in the final when they led 13-0 after 39 minutes with Reece having contributed a large proportion of that score with a sensational first try.
His fellow winger George Bridge had leapt to take a Bryn Hall box kick but there seemed little danger until centre Ryan Crotty spotted space on the right wing and his angled crosskick was snared by the flying Reece just before it reached touch.
The Hurricanes had kicked away most of what possession they had in the first half but they finally got some goal-line pressure just before the break and Laumape burst through four tacklers to touch down.
The visitors were a different proposition in the second half and a neat pass from Perenara saw Lam cross in the corner a minute after the break to cut the deficit to a point at 13-12.
The Crusaders hit back three minutes later with a try started and finished by Mo’unga, whose neat chip over the defence was gathered by Reece who then found his flyhalf with an inside pass that set him free for the line.
The Hurricanes would not lie down, however, and were again back within a point of their hosts at 20-19 after Coles knocked the ball loose in a tackle and Laumape raced after it, chested it across the tryline and touched down.
The game was now flowing back and forth but it was the Crusaders who got the next score when a big cut-out pass to Reece allowed the winger the inches of space he needed to goose-step past Beauden Barrett and ground the ball in the corner.
The Hurricanes came back again, however, and after another period of goal-line pressure, Perenara threw the defence off their stride with a dummy and forced his way over to again make it 27-26.
Mo’unga converted his third penalty to give the nine-times champions a bit of breathing space but they were by no means comfortable until he walloped the ball into touch to end the contest seven minutes later.
(Reporting by Nick Mulvenney in Sydney; Editing by Christian Radnedge)