July 6 (Reuters) - Winger George Bridge scored two tries as the Canterbury Crusaders sealed the top spot in Super Rugby throughout the playoffs with a 45-22 victory over the Otago Highlanders to celebrate Wyatt Crockett’s 200th match milestone on Friday.
David Havili, Scott Barrett and Richie Mo’unga all crossed for the Crusaders in the highly entertaining encounter, which moved them to 58 points and means all of their playoff matches, including the final if they make it, will be at home.
The Crusaders also received a massive boost ahead of the playoffs with All Blacks captain Kieran Read returning after back surgery last year and putting in some solid hits and bruising runs before he was replaced in the 48th minute.
Tyrel Lomax, Ben Smith and Waisake Naholo all crossed for the visitors, who in reality did not deserve to lose by as much as they did but just ran into a Crusaders side marching ominously towards a likely ninth title.
Former All Blacks prop Crockett became the first player to achieve 200 Super Rugby caps when he came on as a sixth-minute replacement for Joe Moody, who appeared to suffer a knee injury in setting up Bridge’s opening try.
Crockett has already said this season would be his last for the Christchurch-based side, who re-named the venue in Addington as “Wyatt Crockett Stadium” for the match.
Despite the celebration, the game was a testament to the strength of both sides.
The Crusaders dominated the set-piece, particularly in the scrum and were ruthless in seizing their opportunities, with Havili and Barrett’s tries coming from their ability to create pressure while on defence and then march downfield.
The Highlanders’ defence, counter-attack and ability to find space through the backs from clever passing and running angles were also evident with Smith and Naholo’s tries superb long-range efforts.
As it has so many times before, however, the All Blacks-laden Crusaders’ pack proved the difference, putting pressure on the Highlanders and tightening up the game when it looked like it might lose its shape midway through the second half.
They also controlled the ball and put Mo’unga into position to knock over three penalties, just when they needed to increase the pressure on the scoreboard.
The Crusaders face the Auckland Blues while the Highlanders host the Melbourne Rebels in the final matches of the regular season next week. (Reporting by Greg Stutchbury; Editing by Amlan Chakraborty)