'It has been an emotional year'
The Crusaders have again made pressure their plaything, emerging 19-3 winners over the Jaguares in Super Rugby’s lowest-scoring final.
Cold, slippery conditions in Christchurch on Saturday turned the decider into a defence-dominated contest, which would always be won by the team who took their opportunities best.
Not surprisingly, that was the Crusaders, whose nous and accuracy steered them to a 10th crown, seven more than any other side.
It was also their third title in a row, matching their achievement of 1998-2000 and further cementing their status as the competition’s pre-eminent team.
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Captain Sam Whitelock said the win was special because of what it meant for a city rocked by the March 15 terror shootings which resulted in 51 deaths.
His team had become tighter and vowed to play for their community.
“It’s been a bit of an emotional year at different times, it’s gone up and gone down,” Whitelock said.
“It’s been massive. We’ve used a massive number of players but everyone has played their part to get there.
“It was actually quite slippery out there, so we actually found we were better without the ball than with it.
“So we kicked those contestable kicks a bit more and tried to put their skills under pressure and at times it worked for us.”
The Jaguares, contesting their first final, shaded most of the game’s possession and territory statistics and created three of the clearest try-scoring chances, all to wing Matias Moroni.
However, none was finished, while Crusaders hooker Codie Taylor bagged the game’s only try midway through the first half.
The other 14 points came via five from five shots at goal by Richie Mo’unga.
Jaguares coach Gonzalo Quesada felt a 16-point margin didn’t reflect the tightness of the contest but tipped his hat to the perennial champions.
“We are proud. We knew it was going to be a final that we had to take advantage of any little opportunity,” he said.
“That was where the Crusaders were better than us. They really had only one chance to score a try. Maybe the one or two we had, we couldn’t take them further.”
“No one likes losing so of course there’s a bit of frustration.
“Everyone must imagine that the guys should be proud and just happy to be here, but the dressing room is very sad and terrible.
“They guys are in tears.”
To chants of “three-peat” from the capacity home crowd of 18,000, the Crusaders extended their run to three back-to-back titles, remain unbeaten in their last 31 games on home soil and have won all 24 of their home play-off games since the competition’s inception in 1996.
“It was a massive relief,” coach Scott Robertson said after the final whistle.
“It was a party, even though the rugby was pretty uneventful in a rugby sense in terms of points, on defence it was tough, it was a grind but everyone climbed into it and knew that a bit of history was going to be made.”
Jaguares flyhalf Joaquin Diaz Bonilla scored the Argentinians’ only points with the game’s opening penalty goal.
Slowly strangled out of the contest, a Jaguares team dominated by Pumas internationals could at least reflect on a breakthrough campaign in just their fourth season.
They won 11 of 12 games leading into the final where they more than held their own, particularly in the collisions, where ferocious defence knocked the hosts off their stride.
The two teams had scored 148 tries between them before the final but neither found their rhythm, with Taylor’s score coming from nowhere, against the run of play.
Four All Blacks forwards combined for the try, with Matt Todd ripping the ball clear in a maul before Kieran Read and Whitelock sent Taylor clear.
The closing minutes of the first half proved pivotal.
Moroni botched a clear try-scoring chance close to the line and his team fell asleep defensively after the hooter, allowing the Crusaders to launch a sweeping attack which resulted in a penalty goal.
It gave the Crusaders a flattering 10-3 lead and they slowly built on that in a grinding second spell, with three further Mo’unga penalty goals.