A depleted Crusaders gave the Hurricanes a lesson in wet weather rugby to end the visitors’ 10-match winning streak to record victory on a slippery ground and in steady rain in Christchurch.
The Crusaders, without at least seven front-line players through injury or suspension, controlled the ball through their forwards, punished their opponent’s poor discipline and produced a bruising defence to drive them back behind the advantage line.
Lock Scott Barrett, prop Michael Alaalatoa and loose forward Heiden Bedwell-Curtis crossed for the home side, while Reed Prinsep scored a late consolation try for the visitors.
The Crusaders held a narrow 7-6 lead at halftime, but dominated the second spell to set up their ninth successive win of the season.
They now hold a five-point lead at the top of the New Zealand conference and in the overall standings ahead of the second-placed Hurricanes on 45.
Lock Scott Barrett, prop Michael Alaalatoa and loose forward Heiden Bedwell-Curtis all scored tries for the home side, while Reed Prinsep scored a late consolation try for the visitors.
The match had been billed as potential precursor to the Aug. 4 final with home advantage throughout the playoffs likely to be claimed by whoever snatched the win.
The Hurricanes had been slightly favoured before the game as the Crusaders were without captain Sam Whitelock and vice-captain Ryan Crotty due to concussion, while props Joe Moody and Owen Franks were suspended.
Prop Tim Perry and loose forward Jordan Taufua were also forced out after sustaining injuries at an All Blacks training camp earlier this week.
The defending champions, however, were happy to showcase the depth in their squad and kept the game tight in a match that never really developed any great flow.
Crusaders’ first-five Richie Mo’unga, who was named in the All Blacks’ squad for the June tests against France, showcased his growing confidence with a sound all-round performance and nine points from the boot.
The home side took a 7-6 lead into the break after Scott Barrett’s converted try was countered by penalties from his brothers Jordie and Beauden, but the Crusaders dominated the second half by controlling possession and territory.
Alaalatoa and Bedwell-Curtis’s tries were both set up by forward dominance and the number eight’s try from an attacking scrum essentially ended the game as contest when the home side opened a 24-6 lead with 15 minutes remaining.
Prinsep scored a late try to give the Hurricanes a faint hope of a comeback they had barely deserved but the Crusaders starved the visitors of possession to comfortably run down the clock.