Crusaders hold off Hurricanes
Wellington - The Crusaders claimed the New Zealand Conference title and a place in the top three seedings for the Super Rugby playoffs with a gutsy 16-9 win over the Hurricanes on Saturday.
Centre Robbie Fruean scored the only try and Dan Carter added eight points with his boot to tame a fired-up Hurricanes side, who were playing for pride in a match that looked like an All Blacks selection trial.
The seven-time champions will have to wait until the Stormers play their final match of the season to find out if they finish second or third in the standings, the difference between a place in the semi-finals or the first round of the playoffs.
However, even if the Stormers beat the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein later on Saturday, the Crusaders are guaranteed home advantage in their opening playoff match despite not having a suitable home at the moment.
Their first encounter with the Hurricanes should have taken place in week two but the deadly Christchurch earthquake put paid to that and did enough damage to the Crusaders' stadium to put them on the road for the season.
Given such adversity, edging the Blues to the New Zealand title is a major achievement, although Todd Blackadder's men will not want it to end there.
The two sides were deadlocked at 6-6 after a gruelling first half played out in the Wellington rain but the Crusaders came out firing from the break and within three minutes were a converted try ahead.
Winger Zac Guildford continued his fine form by showing a fresh pair of orange heels to the Hurricanes defence, weaving in and out of cover tackles before flipping a high pass to Fruean, who went over in the corner for his sixth try of the season.
Hurricanes flyhalf Aaron Cruden narrowed the deficit to 13-9 with his third penalty and would have given his side the lead with a try in the 65th minute had it not been for a crunching tackle from Crusaders fullback Tom Marshall.
Scrumhalf Andy Ellis, whose recent form has done his All Blacks chances no harm, fired a booming drop goal over from 45 metres to complete the scoring three minutes later with the Crusaders weathering some intense pressure to claim the win.
For Hurricanes captain Andrew Hore, the result, if not the performance, was a disappointing end to his long career in Wellington.
"Pretty proud of the way the boys fronted up against a pretty solid Crusaders side," said the hooker, who was released with fellow All Black Ma'a Nonu two weeks ago.
"It's sad, it's no secret that a few of us didn't want to leave on other people's terms but we have to (but) we can hold our heads up high when we go on to greener pastures."
15 Tom Marshall, 14 Brent Ward, 13 Robbie Fruean, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 Zac Guildford, 10 Dan Carter, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Kieran Read (captain), 7 Matt Todd, 6 George Whitelock, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Brad Thorn, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Corey Flynn, 1 Ben Franks
Substitutes: 16 Quentin MacDonald, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Luke Romano, 19 Jonathan Poff, 20 Willi Heinz, 21 Matt Berquist, 22 Tu Umaga-Marshall
15 Cory Jane, 14 Julian Savea, 13 Alapati Leiua, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Hosea Gear, 10 Aaron Cruden, 9 Piri Weepu, 8 Victor Vito, 7 Jack Lam, 6 Faifili Levave, 5 James Broadhurst, 4 Jeremy Thrush, 3 Neemia Tialata, 2 Andrew Hore (captain), 1 John Schwalger
Substitutes: 16 Laurence Corlett, 17 Anthony Perenise, 18 Jason Eaton, 19 Mark Reddish, 20 Chris Eaton, 21 Jayden Hayward, 22 Richard Buckman
Skipper Kieran Read holds the trophy after the Crusaders captured the New Zealand Super Rugby Conference title (Gallo Images)