The Crusaders tripped at the final hurdle and tumbled to their first loss in the final round of league matches, a 31-22 reverse against the Hurricanes in Wellington.
The Lions’ team room would have erupted in cheers at the final whistle as the table-topping Crusaders finished their league campaign with 63 log points, two more than South Africa’s flagbearers.
As a result, success against the Sharks at King’s Park on Saturday will catapult the Lions into first place and cue a rematch against the eighth-seeded Durbanites in Johannesburg next week. This is a match the Sharks will be much more confident of winning than a trip to Christchurch to face the Crusaders, if the Lions don’t power to the top of the pile.
The lead changed hands several times in a see-saw encounter, but the 14-win Crusaders had no answer for the brute force of Hurricanes backs such as Julian Savea and Ngani Laumape, and the home team powered across the line to score four tries to three.
The Hurricanes were dealt a double blow shortly before kick off when Beauden Barrett and Vince Aso withdrew through illness and injury respectively.
This saw Otere Black coming into the starting lineup at flyhalf with Jordie Barrett switching from fullback to outside centre and Nehe Milner-Skudder moving from the right wing to wear the No 15 jersey, while Wes Goosen took his place out wide.
The Crusaders made a bright start and opened the scoring as early as the third minute and after Jordan Taufua and Scott Barrett traded passes before Richie Mo’unga threw a long pass to Seta Tamanivalu who dotted down in the right-hand corner.
The eight-time champions continued to hold the upperhand during the early exchanges and extended their lead in the 14th minute when Kieran Read offloaded to Tamanivalu who cantered over for his second try.
The Hurricanes soaked up that early pressure and although the Crusaders continued to dominate, they could not score more during the half. In fact, it was the Hurricanes who scored next when Barrett opened their account after running onto a pass from Black inside the visitors’ 22.
Barrett added the extras, which meant the Crusaders led 12-7 at the interval but the Hurricanes were fastest out of the blocks after the restart when Julian Savea scored their second try in the 45th minute.
This after he knocked back a crossfield kick from Black deep inside the visitors’ 22 before regathering the ball and crossing the whitewash.
The Crusader regained the lead when Richie Mo’unga landed a penalty three minutes later and pushed further ahead in the 55th minute thanks to a brilliant try from Israel Dagg.
This, after he ran onto a pass from Read off the back of a scrum on the Hurricanes’ five-metre line and Dagg did brilliantly to beat Barrett with a deft side-step before diving over.
That would be the last time the vsitors would score points, however, as the Hurricanes took control of proceedings in the final quarter.
First, Goosen crossed the whitewash on the hour-mark after combining with Perenara deep inside the Crusaders’ 22 and Barrett’s conversion kick meant the match was on a knife edge with the men from Christchurch leading 22-21.
The Hurricanes were back in front in the 65th minute when Ngani Laumape found Vaea Fifita in the clear with a well-timed pass inside the Crusaders’ 22 and the burly forward did well to round Tamanivalu before diving in at the right hand corner – Barrett adding the extras to give his side six-point lead with time running out on the clock.
The Crusaders were chasing the game now but the Hurricanes finished stronger and Barrett made sure there would be no losing bonus point for the visitors when he slotted a penalty in the 78th minute.
Tries: Barrett, J Savea, Goosen, Fifitia
Cons: Barrett 4
Tries: Tamanivalu 2, Dagg
Cons: Mo’unga 2
Hurricanes: 15 Nehe Milner-Skudder, 14 Wes Goosen, 13 Jordie Barrett, 12 Ngani Laumape, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Otere Black, 9 TJ Perenara (c), 8 Brad Shields, 7 Ardie Savea, 6 Vaea Fifita, 5 Sam Lousi, 4 Mark Abbott, 3 Jeff Toomaga-Allen, 2 Ricky Riccitelli, 1 Ben May
Replacements: 16 James O’Reilly, 17 Chris Eves, 18 Loni Uhila, 19 Reed Prinsep, 20 Callum Gibbins, 21 Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, 22 Wes Goosen, 23 Cory Jane
Crusaders: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Seta Tamanivalu, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 David Havili, 11 George Bridge, 10 Richie Mo’unga, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Matt Todd (c), 6 Jordan Taufua, 5 Scott Barrett, 4 Luke Romano, 3 Michael Alaalatoa, 2 Ben Funnell, 1 Wyatt Crockett
Replacements: 16 Andrew Makalio, 17 Tim Perry, 18 Oliver Jager, 19 Sam Whitelock, 20 Jed Brown, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 Mitchell Hunt, 23 Sean Wainui
Referee: Glen Jackson
Assistant Referees: Brendon Pickerill, Angus Mabey
TMO: Glenn Newman