The Crusaders put one hand on the trophy with an emphatic 30-12 demolition of the Hurricanes in Christchurch on Saturday.
The eight-times champions will host the Final next week – with either the Lions or Waratahs making the trip to fortress Christchurch.
It was a clinical performance from the Crusaders, who demolished the Hurricanes from the opening exchanges and look near unbeatable.
It will require a super-human effort from whomever arrives in Christchurch next week to stop the Crusaders from a ninth title.
For most of the first half the Crusaders enjoyed more than 70 percent of the possession, while the Hurricanes’ error count shot through the roof.
It didn’t change much after the break.
The real difference was the Crusaders’ key players – their senior All Blacks – produced the quality performances expected of them.
In stark contrast the Hurricanes’ big names – the Barrett brother Beauden and Jordie, as well as centre Ngani Laumape – were mostly shut out of the game and were largely ineffective.
The growing error count did not help the visitors either.
And the Hurricanes were forced into a game unfamiliar to them – trying to play for field position, rather than using their backs – because of the poor quality of the possession they did get.
Both teams took a while to settle down, but there was plenty energy in those early exchanges.
The Hurricanes won an early penalty, after the Crusaders collapsed a maul near halfway. Jordie Barrett lined up a shot from just over halfway and it was just wide.
David Havili and George Bridge found gaps in the Hurricanes’ defensive line, but the Crusaders failed to finish off their early opportunities – with the Hurricanes’ scramble defence covering for those lapses.
Richie Mo’unga eventually found a hole and slipped over for the first try in the 15th minute – after a long period of sustained attack by the Crusaders.
A Mo’unga mistake – a straight forward knock-on – presented the Hurricanes with their first real chance, inside the Crusaders 22-metre area. And they paid for that error – Julian Savea going over, with two defenders hanging on, in the right corner, after a number of phases that looked to be going nowhere.
It left the teams tied an seven-all by the end of the first quarter.
A high tackle gave the Crusaders a penalty and Mo’unga put the ball out deep inside the Hurricanes 22-metre area for a line-out. George Bridge finished off a pre-planned move – with a long pass by Bryn Hall found the wing in some space.
The try put Bridge level with the record for most tries in a season, his 15th.
Two Mo’unga penalties took the Crusaders into a 18-7 lead at the half-time break.
The Hurricanes needed to score first after the break, but a Nehe Milner-Skudder handling error robbed them of any early momentum.
And from that scrum the Crusaders moved it upfield, regained possession and some sound passing put David Havili over for a try that effectively ended the game as a contest.
The Hurricanes now put up only token resistance, as the Crusaders went into cruise mode – but still having too much in the tank for the outclassed visitors.
Mo’unga rubbed salt into the wounds with a sublime cross-field kick – collected by replacement Braydon Ennor for the try of the match.
With less than 10 minutes to go Beauden Barrett went close, but the TMO ruled that he placed the ball short of the line. And Ngani Laumape also lost the ball just metres short of the line.
There was a late consolation score by Ben Lam, after the hooter for full-time had already sound.
However, the game was well and truly dominated by the Crusaders, who were good value for their 30-12 victory.
Man of the match: The Hurricanes relied heavily on their big ball carriers – like Julian Savea and Ngani Laumape – with limited success. Prop Jeff Toomaga-Allen and flank Brad Shields were the most productive for the visitors. For the Crusaders senior players like Kieran Read, Matt Todd, Jordan Taufua, Samuel Whitelock and Scott Barrett did a mountain of work on and off the ball. However, it was among the backs where the real damage was done – David Havili, Jack Goodhue, Ryan Crotty, George Bridge and Richie Mo’unga the most effective. Our award goes to the Crusaders flyhalf, Mo’unga, who was the director of a great show. He also emphatically won his head-to-head contest with the All Black flyhalf and current World Rugby player of the year, Beauden Barrett.
For the Crusaders:
Tries: Mo’unga, Bridge, Havili, Ennor
Cons: Mo’unga 2
Pens: Mo’unga 2
For the Hurricanes:
Tries: J Savea
Cons: B Barrett