All Blacks pivot Dan Carter’s return to five-eighth fired the Crusaders to a 35-18 win over Super Rugby leaders the Hurricanes in Nelson.
Ninth on the ladder going into Friday’s match, the seven-time champions kept their hopes of reaching the playoffs alive with a bonus-point win at Trafalgar Park.
They were missing six All Blacks – Israel Dagg, Colin Slade, Kieran Read, Sam Whitelock, Joe Moody and Ryan Crotty all unavailable through injury – and hold only a slim mathematical chance of reaching the playoffs for a 14th straight season.
Carter, who has featured largely at inside centre this season, kicked six from seven as the Hurricanes fell to just their second loss of the season.
Both teams struggled to win their own lineouts in the opening half-hour, but the Crusaders proved more punishing.
Luke Romano made the steal from a poor Hurricanes lineout on the 22, the ball was shifted wide to powerful winger Nemani Nadolo who ran straight through fullback Nehe Milner-Skudder before offloading for inside centre David Havili.
Havili’s pass to halfback Mitchell Drummond was perfectly timed, and Carter added the conversion to two earlier penalties to give the home team a 16-3 lead after 25 minutes.
Five minutes later, the Crusaders lost centre Robbie Fruean to the sin bin for a dangerous tackle on Milner-Skudder, and the Hurricanes capitalised soon after with try out wide to All Blacks hooker Dane Coles.
The Crusaders took a 16-8 lead into halftime, proving more accurate with the ball in hand as the Hurricanes lineout struggles and handling errors negated their huge territorial advantage.
It took barely a minute after the restart for the Hurricanes to narrow the Crusaders lead to a single point.
Ma’a Nonu launched a blistering counterattack from inside the 22, his grubber kick through bouncing up for Conrad Smith, whose quick pass unleashed Ardie Savea into space down the right where he combined with Milner-Skudder in a quick one-two for the try.
Winger Nafi Tuitavake restored the Crusaders margin after 46 minutes, crossing for his first try in 18 matches before Nadolo’s devastating burst up the middle set up the Crusaders’ third try to flanker Matt Todd.
Nadolo had the final say with less than 10 minutes remaining, chasing down a sweeping Carter kick ahead for the bonus-point try.