Christchurch - The Crusaders produced a Super Rugby 13-try spectacular, including a Johnny McNicholl hat-trick, to thrash the Melbourne Rebels 85-26 in Christchurch on Saturday.
The lop-sided encounter kept the seven-time champions one point behind the Chiefs who also collected maximum points when they whipped the Queensland Reds 50-5 on Friday and ensured the New Zealand conference will go down to the wire.
Had Richie Mo'unga been at his kicking best the Crusaders would have been nudging 50 points by half-time as they scored seven tries in the first 40 minutes to turn with a 43-7 lead over the injury hit Rebels.
They added a further six tries in the second half and were threatening competition records until their relentless scoring pace tapered off in the final quarter.
The Crusaders set the record for the highest score in Super Rugby when they beat the NSW Waratahs 96-19 in 2002. They scored a record 14 tries in that match which was equalled by the Central Cheetahs earlier this year when they beat the Sunwolves 92-17.
Stung by their loss to the Chiefs last week, and losing their place at the top of the ladder, the Crusaders were determined to make amends as they thrived on audacious offloads against a brittle defence.
Sam Whitelock, in his 100th Super game and captaining the side in the absence of Kieran Read, set the tone when he scored the opening try after 90 seconds.
"We weren't happy after last week and we wanted to start well and the boys did that, spot on," Whitelock said.
Although the Rebels ranks were decimated by injury and flanker Colby Fainga'a was converted into a back to plug a hole in the second half, captain Nic Stirzaker made no excuses.
"It was a pretty rotten start, a charge down and a try early and then it was tough to stop the rot once it set in. We were pretty dreadful and they were exceptional," he said.
In addition to McNicholl's triple, Ryan Crotty and Codie Taylor both scored two tries, while Whitelock, Scott Barrett, Alex Hodgman, Nemani Nadolo, Pete Samu and Matt Todd also crossed the line.
Mo'unga landed seven conversions and Nadolo two.
scored the Rebels only try in the first half with Reece Hodge, Culum Retallick and Sefa Naivalu scoring after the break. Jack Debreczeni landed three conversions.
The Crusaders finish off the regular season next Saturday hosting the Wellington Hurricanes in a rare afternoon match and just ahead of the Chiefs' clash in Dunedin against the defending champion Otago Highlanders.
The Rebels, who are well out of contention in the Australian conference, play the Queensland Reds on Friday.
Tries: Sam Whitelock, Ryan Crotty (2), Scott Barrett, Alex Hodgman, Nemani Nadolo, Johnny McNicholl (3), Codie Taylor (2), Pete Samo, Matt Todd
Conversions: Richie Mo'unga (7), Nadolo (3)
Tries: Nic Stirzaker, Reece Hodge, Culum Retallick, Sefa Naivalu
Conversions: Jack Debreczeni (3)
15 Israel Dagg, 14 Johnny McNicholl, 13 Ryan Crotty, 12 David Havili, 11 Nemani Nadolo, 10 Richie Mo'unga, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Jimmy Tupou, 7 Matt Todd, 6 Jordan Taufua, 5 Sam Whitelock (captain), 4 Scott Barrett, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Alex Hodgman
Substitutes: 16 Ben Funnell, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Mike Alalaalatoa, 19 Luke Romano, 20 Pete Samo, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 Mitch Hunt, 23 Kieran Fonotia
15 Mike Harris, 14 Sefa Naivalu, 13 Sione Tuipulotu, 12 Reece Hodge, 11 Tom English, 10 Jack Debreczeni, 9 Nic Stirzaker (captain), 8 Adam Thomson, 7 Colby Fainga’a, 6 Jordy Reid, 5 Culum Retallick, 4 Sam Jeffries, 3 Laurie Weeks, 2 James Hanson, 1 Toby Smith
Substitutes: 16 Pat Leafa, 17 Cruze Ah Nau, 18 Jamie Hagan, 19 Steve Cummins, 20 Rob Leota, 21 Ben Meehan, 22 Paul Asquith, 23 Jonah Placid