The Crusaders have been left sweating on the result of the Blues game against the Western Force, after falling just short of the winning margin required to overtake the Highlanders and assure themselves of a berth in the Super Rugby Trans-Tasman final.
The Crusaders came into the game knowing exactly what they needed to do – win by a margin more than 32 points and win by a bonus point.
If they did so, they would jump above the Highlanders on points differential, and would be assured of a place in the final next week.
But they were unable to do it, a final result of 52-26 not enough to secure their spot.
They had got off to a flyer, Drummond snatching the ball off the back of the ruck right on the goal line and diving over in the third minute.
Ninety seconds later Mo’unga broke through the line with ease, finding Jordan on his left, who was simply too quick for the chasing Rebels defenders, and the lead was 14 after just five minutes.
But it was the Rebels who struck back, Hosea touching down after a slick couple of plays from the Rebels off the back of a lineout.
The Crusaders had their third before the 20 minute mark. Some quick hands down the left wing kept the ball in play and eventually landed in the willing hands of Fainga’anuku, who had nothing more to do except put the ball down over the line.
Mo’unga was unable to nail his third conversion, but already the Crusaders looked like they would easily cruise to their target.
Their dominance continued. It was Barrett this time who broke the line off the restart, with Mo’unga the recipient of the offload this time. The Crusaders worked their way deep into Rebels territory and a long ball over the top from Mo’unga found Reece wide open on the right wing to score with ease.
But then the game changed.
Jordan was sent to the bin midway through the first half for a failed attempted intercept, and the Rebels were able to snatch back a try thanks to a lovely dummy by halfback Powell that allowed him to dart through the defensive line and bundle over.
It got worse for the Super Rugby Aotearoa champions. In what would have been a try of the season contender, Ennor inexplicably dropped the ball after being clear through right on the halftime whistle, leaving the margin at just 14.
Jordan raced away to touch down what looked like his second of the game just two minutes into the second half, but the TMO found Kellaway had just managed to force the Crusaders fullback into touch by the thinnest of margins.
But Reece was able to double his personal tally minutes later, walking over in the right corner to extend the margin to 19, before Mo’unga missed a valuable conversion.
Those lost points would come back to haunt them, as the Rebels were next to score, sustained pressure eventually rewarded with a try to Vaihu. The conversion was scored and the margin dropped to just 12.
With less than 25 minutes to play, the Crusaders needed to score three converted tries, while simultaneously not letting the Rebels score again.
Reece got his hat-trick in the 58th minute, taking a quick tap off the penalty just metres out and darting over the line before the Rebels could even react.
Mo’unga made no mistake this time, as a mouth-watering last 20 minutes was set up.
But once again they faltered, as a wayward pass from Jordan fell behind Reece, allowing Koroibete to scoop the ball up and fling it inside for Lomani to race over the line.
All of a sudden, three tries were needed once more. This time with just 15 minutes remaining.
They got one – Jager busting through the goal line defence to score his first career try. Mo’unga made no mistake from the tee.
Two more needed, 13 minutes remaining.
Williams looked to have scored for the Crusaders just a minute later, but was ruled to have lost control of the ball while reaching for the line.
It did not appear to cost them, as moments later a bullet pass from Hall found Ennor, who scored right under the posts to give Mo’unga a simple conversion.
One try needed, eight minutes remaining.
And they did it. Or did they?
Barely two minutes later, the Crusaders were deep in Rebels territory again. Fainga’anuku used his strength to bustle his way towards the line, but fell just short, making a second movement to push the ball over the chalk. The TMO ruled it out, and the final remained just out of arm’s reach.
The Crusaders tried desperately, but error after error cost them valuable possession and territory as the clock wound down.
At the end, they simply ran out of time.
Heads were down as the final whistle was blown, knowing nothing but a Blues capitulation would see them play for their second title this season.