The Crusaders moved to an unassailable 28 points, six ahead of the second-placed Auckland Blues, who host the Christchurch-based side in the final game of the domestic competition next Sunday.
WELLINGTON – Winger George Bridge scored two tries in the space of three minutes in the second half to help the Crusaders beat the Highlanders 32-22 on Sunday and clinch the Super Rugby Aotearoa title with a match to spare.
With the come-from-behind victory, the Crusaders moved to an unassailable 28 points, six ahead of the second-placed Auckland Blues, who host the Christchurch-based side in the final game of the domestic competition next Sunday.
The third-placed Wellington Hurricanes had moved to 21 points after their fifth successive win on Saturday and had hopes they might be able to force the tournament to a final week.
The Crusaders are the most successful side in Super Rugby, having won 10 titles in the competition that included teams from Australia, South Africa, Argentina and Japan.
The match was played at a frenetic tempo with the Highlanders taking a leaf out of the book of the Hurricanes, who beat the Crusaders two weeks ago, by refusing to take a backwards step and seize their points-scoring opportunities.
Loose forward Shannon Frizell scored a second-minute try after the Highlanders turned the ball over with an aggressive counter-ruck while winger Jona Nareki made a crucial intercept and ran 80 metres untouched for their second try.
Crusaders’ flyhalf Richie Mo’unga was responsible for all of his side’s first-half points with a converted try and two penalties that left his side only trailing 17-13 at halftime.
Michael Collins extended the Highlanders’ lead to 22-13 with 25 minutes remaining, but the home side grabbed the lead for the first time when Bridge crossed twice to give them a 25-22 advantage.
Braydon Ennor then put the match beyond doubt with five minutes remaining when he crossed for his side’s fourth try.