Christchurch, New Zealand (AP) — The back three of Braydon Ennor, Sevu Reece and David Havili shared eight tries as the Crusaders emphatically sealed first place in the Super Rugby league standings by routing the Melbourne Rebels 66-0 in their last match of the regular season on Saturday.
Wingers Ennor and Reece scored three tries each and fullback Havili two as the defending champion Crusaders unleashed all of their backline armory in a 10-tries-to-nil win to make sure of home advantage through the playoffs. Ennor missed a fourth try when he knocked on with the line open in the last minutes.
It was a resounding response to a mild dip in form from the record nine-time Super Rugby champions, who lost for only the second time this season last round.
After outclassing the Rebels, the Christchurch-based Crusaders sit nine points clear of closest chasers the Wellington-based Hurricanes with one round of regular season games remaining. With top place secured, the Crusaders will have a bye in that final round, precious rest time ahead of the quarterfinals on June 22.
The Crusaders are seeking a third straight title.
The Hurricanes made sure of fourth place with an impressive 37-17 win away in Johannesburg over the Lions, who have made the last three finals.
Winger Ben Lam scored two tries in the first 10 minutes of the second half after the teams had been level at 10-10 at halftime to break the game open for the Hurricanes.
Swarming the breakdown, the Hurricanes won the physical battle and outscored the Lions five tries to two. That included a double for All Blacks hooker Dane Coles, who came off the bench in the second half along with flanker Ardie Savea to give the Hurricanes extra power up front and the winning edge.
The Hurricanes have the second-highest points tally of the competition behind the Crusaders but tournament rules dictate that the leaders of each of the three regional conferences hold the top three places.
That’s New Zealand conference winners the Crusaders, Australian conference winners ACT Brumbies and South Africa conference leaders the Jaguares. The Jaguares will seal the South African conference, a major surprise from the Argentina-based team, if they beat the Sharks later Saturday.
While the top four appears set, the race for the remaining quarterfinal places is tight. Just five points separate fifth and 11th place in the standings.
Stung by last week’s shock loss to the Hamilton-based Chiefs, the Crusaders produced a brilliant attacking performance to crush the Rebels.
The Crusaders tore to shreds a disorganized Rebels defense, especially taking advantage of wide gaps on both flanks. Flyhalf Richie Mo’unga kicked to those spaces and Ennor, Reece, and Havili provided slick finishing touches.
Reece took his tally of tries for the season to 13, moving clear atop the list of try-scorers. Ennor and Reece, both uncapped, are strong contenders for New Zealand’s squad for this year’s Rugby World Cup.
Scrumhalf Bryn Hall combined with Reece for another try and center Ryan Crotty scored the last and most celebrated to mark his 150th game for the Crusaders. He added the conversion.
“Obviously last week the pressure came on a little bit,” Crusader captain Sam Whitelock said. “But it was awesome for (Crotty) to score in his 150th and wind back the clock by taking the shot at goal, too.”
The Brumbies clinched Australian conference honors and ended the playoff hopes of the New South Wales Waratahs with a 35-24 win.
The Brumbies had the match all but wrapped up at halftime. Four tries in 18 minutes — to Rory Arnold, Andy Muirhead, Irae Simone and Folau Faingaa, all converted by skipper Christian Leali’ifano — saw the visitors lead 28-3 at the break.
Flanker Tom Cusack sealed victory with the Brumbies’ fifth try with five minutes remaining.
“I felt like we took our opportunities. We tried to play reasonably simple and our forward pack were really strong and it was nice to get a mixture of scores there,” Leali’ifano said. “So things are working really well. Top of the conference is nice.”
Later Saturday, Argentina’s Jaguares clinched the South African Super Rugby conference title with a 34-7 victory over the Durban-based Sharks. A try either side of halftime to fullback Emiliano Boffelli gave the Jaguares the conference title with one week remaining in the regular season and earned it a home quarterfinal in the first week of the playoffs.
Centre Andre Esterhuizen scored a late consolation try for the Sharks, which sits just outside the top eight.
The Cape Town-based Stormers forced their way into the top eight and kept their playoff places alive with a 31-18 win over Japan’s Sunwolves, with No. 8 Jaco Coetzee scoring two of the Stormers’ four tries.