Winger Manasa Mataele scored two tries, while referee Nick Briant awarded two penalty tries as the Canterbury Crusaders began their quest for a 10th Super Rugby title with a 24-22 win over the Auckland Blues at Eden Park on Saturday.
The Blues could have snatched a late victory but replacement flyhalf Harry Plummer missed a long-range penalty with less than three minutes remaining, shortly after he had also missed a much easier conversion.
Briant awarded a penalty try in each half as the Crusaders’ All Blacks forwards asserted their dominance over the Blues, who were unexpectedly competitive for much of the match but buckled at crucial moments.
Blues flanker Tom Robinson conceded the first penalty try when he collapsed a driving lineout maul, which also earned him a yellow card, while the Crusaders pack earned the second when they disintegrated the Auckland scrum numerous times.
Number eight Akira Ioane, prop Ofa Tuungafasi and scrumhalf Augustine Pulu scored tries for the Blues, who have been the worst New Zealand side since 2012, but showed they could be more competitive this year if they can reduce their mistakes.
The Crusaders, however, were ultimately too clinical at crucial times during the match, just as the Blues looked to be getting parity and some momentum.
The home side dominated the opening spell but only had Otere Black’s penalty to show for their endeavour as the Crusaders dominated the scrum, fringe defence and, led by lock Scott Barrett, slowed down the Blues ball and earned penalties.
They also applied enormous pressure inside the Blues’ half and fed off mistakes, with Mataele’s first try the result of a dropped ball by fullback Michael Collins, while the first penalty try gave them a 12-3 lead at the break.
The Blues continued to attack in the second half with Ioane finishing off a sweeping movement that involved both backs and forwards after Melani Nanai had pounced on a loose ball inside his own half.
Tuungafasi, who with fellow All Blacks Karl Tu’inukuafe gave the Blues scrum some solidity, added their second to give them a 17-12 lead before Mataele added his second try following a searing break from George Bridge.
Crusaders centre Braydon Ennor, who slightly overshadowed returning All Blacks great Ma’a Nonu, used his pace to set up field position that led to their second penalty try.
Pulu’s try gave the Blues hope of drawing level with seven minutes remaining but Plummer missed the conversion then the potential game-winning penalty shortly after. (Reporting by Greg Stutchbury in Wellington; Editing by Amlan Chakraborty)