Fiji wing Nemani Nadolo scored two tries as he returned to Super Rugby action with the Crusaders in their 21-13 win over the Blues.
Stuttering to their tenth win of the season to move four points clear at the top of the New Zealand Conference, the Crusaders laboured to victory as Dan Carter started for the first time in 2014.
This was a high-tempo contest where composure was often missing when it mattered most, with both sides guilty of kicking the ball away when in the opponent’s 22 rather than patiently looking for the right pass.
Similar to the way the contest in Hamilton unfolded on Friday between the Chiefs and Hurricanes, the Crusaders and Blues looked anxious and spluttered their way through a match where the result mattered more than the performance.
So much rode on the contest with the Crusaders seeking to keep the chasing pack at arm’s length going into next week’s final round, while the Blues still had an outside chance of breaking into the top six.
Losing Sam Whitelock to a calf injury the day before meant the Crusaders lineout had to undergo an adjustment. His influence and athleticism were missed.
It was a special night for Keven Mealamu, the All Blacks hooker becoming the first player to make 150 appearances for a single team in Super Rugby. He couldn’t mark it with a win.
Colin Slade and Ihaia West traded opening penalties before Nadolo grabbed the game’s first try.
Returning from international duty with Fiji were he has excelled, the in-form wing just did enough to ground the ball before being tackled into touch. He was inch perfect when it mattered.
Quick ball at the breakdown handed the Crusaders the majority of possession and they nearly crossed for try number two when Dominic Bird rumbled his way up to just short of the line.
Frank Halai’s moment of brilliance however stunned the home crowd, intercepting the pass from Andy Ellis to race 100 metres for the try to put the Blues into the lead.
Slade restored the Crusaders lead with his second penalty after Mealamu had nowhere to go at the ruck but West responded in kind – the Blues pack rumbling well with their maul as both sides jostled for the lead.
Two scrum penalties against the Blues in their half both went unpunished as Slade failed to convert, leaving the visitors with a 13-11 lead at the break.
A slow and scrappy start to the second half saw the Blues reverse their fortunes at the scrum, winning successive penalties but with no points to show for it.
The highlight in some ways, although not for Crusaders fans, was a bruising carry from Ma’a Nonu that left Slade flat out, a week on from suffering a similar hit against the Hurricanes. His departure duly followed as Carter moved back to fly-half.
Carter finally punctured what for 25 minutes had been a woeful, scoreless second half with a penalty to put the Crusaders in front at 14-13.
Nadolo’s second try swiftly followed, Kieron Fonotia doing well to offload from the deck as the big Fijian dove over from close range.
There was no coming back for the Blues, their Super Rugby hopes over for another year. The Crusaders meanwhile have a valuable gap ahead of next week’s final round.
For Crusaders: Tries: Nadolo 2 Con: Carter Pens: Slade 2, Carter
For Blues: Try: Halai Con: West Pens: West 2
Crusaders: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Kieron Fonotia, 13 Ryan Crotty, 12 Dan Carter, 11 Nemani Nadolo, 10 Colin Slade, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Kieran Read (c), 7 Matt Todd, 6 Jordan Taufua, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Dominic Bird, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Ben Funnell, 1 Wyatt Crockett Replacements: 16 Corey Flynn, 17 Joe Moody, 18 Nepo Laulala, 19 Jimmy Tupou, 20 Luke Whitelock, 21 Willi Heinz, 22 Tom Taylor, 23 Johnny McNicholl
Blues: 15 Lolagi Visinia, 14 Frank Halai, 13 Pita Ahki, 12 Ma’a Nonu, 11 Charles Piutau, 10 Ihaia West, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Jerome Kaino, 7 Luke Braid (c), 6 Steven Luatua, 5 Tom Donnelly, 4 Patrick Tuipulotu, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 Keven Mealamu, 1 Tony Woodcock Replacements: 16 James Parsons, 17 Ofa Tu’ungafasi, 18 Sam Prattley, 19 Hayden Triggs, 20 Peter Saili, 21 Jamison Gibson-Park, 22 Francis Saili, 23 George Moala
Referee: Glen Jackson (New Zealand) Assistant Referees: Garratt Williamson (New Zealand), Mike Lash (New Zealand) TMO: Vinny Munro (New Zealand)