Two tries to the Crusaders’ powerhouse Fijian winger Nemani Nadolo wrapped up a 21-13 Super Rugby win over the Blues in Christchurch on Saturday.
Nadolo crossed once in each half, his second coming just nine minutes from fulltime as the New Zealand conference leaders dug in for a hard-earned win.
With key players Kieran Read, Owen Franks and Dan Carter back in the starting 15, the Crusaders looked to play an up-tempo game right from the opening whistle but lapses in accuracy and an inability to build phases cost them in the first half.
They were missing All Blacks lock Sam Whitelock, a calf injury barely 30 minutes before kick-off bringing Jimmy Tupou in to partner Dominic Bird.
Nadolo, back from international duty with Fiji, crossed for his eighth try of the season after 17 minutes as the Crusaders shifted the ball wide.
Openside flanker Matt Todd showed good vision and quick hands with a pass which found Nadolo storming down the left, the giant winger showing excellent strength to barrel over in the corner.
The Crusaders looked set to add another two minutes later, but instead butchered a certain try from close range.
With two unmarked players to his left, halfback Andy Ellis looped his pass wide and sole Blues defender Frank Halai pounced to sprint 100m for the intercept try.
Five-eighths Colin Slade and Ihaia West traded penalties, but two misses just before halftime cost the Crusaders dearly as the visitors took a 13-11 lead into halftime.
Both teams struggled for momentum in the second spell, the ninth-placed Blues desperate for a win to keep their play-off hopes alive.
They camped inside the Crusaders’ 22 for much of the third quarter, and although they inflicted little damage on the scoreboard they did force a rearrangement of the Crusaders’ backline when Ma’a Nonu crunched into the luckless Slade.
With Slade off, Carter moved in from inside centre to his more familiar No.10 position and resumed kicking duties to slot the 66th-minute penalty which gave the Crusaders a 14-13 lead.
Five minutes later, the Crusaders’ quick work at the breakdown gave them some front foot ball and Nadolo crashed over from close range for his ninth try of the season.