Super Rugby: Crusaders, Lions set up repeat of 2017 final

Crusaders Seta Tamanivalu, left, runs inside Hurricanes Ben Lam during their Super Rugby semifinal in Christchurch, New Zealand, Saturday, July 28. (AP Photo/Mark Baker)
Crusaders Seta Tamanivalu, left, runs inside Hurricanes Ben Lam during their Super Rugby semifinal in Christchurch, New Zealand, Saturday, July 28. (AP Photo/Mark Baker)

Johannesburg (AP) — The Crusaders maintained their seemingly unstoppable progress toward a record-extending ninth Super Rugby title on Saturday and will host the Lions in next weekend’s final, a repeat of the 2017 championship game.

New Zealand’s Crusaders won that game away in Johannesburg a year ago. The defending champions will have the added advantage this year of playing the season-finale at home in Christchurch.

The Crusaders progressed to their 13th final in the 23 seasons of Super Rugby when they overwhelmed the Wellington-based Hurricanes 30-12 in a one-sided all-New Zealand semifinal.

The Lions came back from 14-0 down to New South Wales Waratahs to win the second semifinal 44-26 in Johannesburg later Saturday. The Lions will contest their third straight final, and are still seeking a first title.

The Lions found themselves down to two quick tries from the Sydney-based Waratahs at Ellis Park. The 2017 runners-up responded with six tries, including two by hooker Malcolm Marx, who was at the center of a dominant Lions scrum and rolling maul that the Waratahs couldn’t match.

Flanker Kwagga Smith also scored two tries as, with the game 19-19 at halftime, the Lions went on a run of 18 unanswered points in the second half to clinch their place in the final.

Crusaders winger George Bridge scored his 15th try of the season, briefly equaling the season record, as the Crusaders improved their record to 20-0 in home playoff games.

Hurricanes winger Ben Lam reclaimed the season try-scoring record at 16 — an all-time high — with the last try of the game but it was too late to change its outcome.

“It was great. The boys really dug in,” Crusaders captain Sam Whitelock said. “We knew it was going to take an 80-minute performance and we were spot on, we didn’t give up.

“We concentrated all week … and I was really proud of the boys. They did what they said they were going to do.”

While the Crusaders dominated from the start, winning 80 percent of possession in the first half, the match pivoted on periods of play immediately before and after halftime.

The Crusaders opened an 18-7 lead with tries to Bridge and flyhalf Richie Mo’unga, who also added a conversion and two penalties in the first half.

The Hurricanes had the last possession of the first half and, trailing by 11 points, needed to score to keep their hopes alive. But they conceded possession and the teams went to halftime with that margin intact.

That made it imperative the Hurricanes score first in the second half. They had possession again but another error, a botched restart from the 22, gave the Crusaders the chance they needed to make the game safe.

Center Jack Goodhue made a long run back into the Hurricanes 22 and linked quickly with All Black captain Kieran Read who drove the ball toward the line. The Crusaders instantly recycled the ball for scrumhalf Bryn Hall and he found fullback David Havili running into the line at pace to score the try that made the game safe at 25-7.

The Hurricanes came into the match as underdogs and knowing that, on the evidence of the Crusaders’ wins in their last 13 matches, they couldn’t afford to make mistakes.

Instead, their handling was poor and they played into Crusaders hands with a flawed kicking game.

Once the best attacking team in the tournament, the Hurricanes could think of no way to break down the Crusaders defense but for a first-half try to Julian Savea.

They tried to build phases to stretch the defense but the Crusaders were able to absorb that pressure and there was no point of weakness on which the Hurricanes could focus their attack.

The Crusaders, after a shaky start, were guided to victory by Mo’unga whose cross-kick created a late try for Braydon Ennor and who kicked four of six shots at goal.