WELLINGTON, April 21 (Reuters) - Ryan Crotty scored a brace of tries as the Canterbury Crusaders fended off a feisty Sunwolves team 33-11 in Christchurch on Saturday to top the New Zealand conference of Super Rugby.
The home win came with a heavy injury toll for the champions, however, with hooker Ben Funnell limping off early in the first half before number eight team mate Tom Sanders came off in the arms of trainers with a leg injury at the half-hour.
Having leapt out to a 14-0 lead with two tries in the first 10 minutes, the injuries robbed the Crusaders of cohesion and the dogged Sunwolves pulled within three points early in the second half after a hail-storm lashed the ground.
All Blacks centre Crotty’s second try rallied the home side and tries to winger Manasa Mataele and replacement halfback Jack Stratton, who crossed in the last minute, ensured a bonus point in the Crusaders’ sixth win of the season.
The struggling Sunwolves slumped to their eighth loss of a winless season but will not leave Christchurch bereft of confidence after matching the powerful New Zealanders for much of the contest.
Back at their home ground after a bye and a successful tour of South Africa and Argentina, the Crusaders came out firing against their Japanese opponents.
Four seconds before the first minute was up, Crotty finished off a brilliant move by flyhalf Mike Delany who ghosted through two defenders and sidestepped a third before floating a pass wide to the charging inside centre.
Seven minutes later, the Crusaders had their second try, a line-out drive at the left corner storming over the line and giving flanker-captain Matt Todd the points.
A rout threatened but the Sunwolves hit back through inside centre Michael Little, who ran onto a deft, little pass from Timothy Lafaele before bolting over.
A fierce storm then turned the match into a scoreless arm-wrestle as the hosts were restricted to 14-5 to half-time.
Poor discipline allowed the Sunwolves to claw back within three points by the 50-minute mark, with flyhalf Hayden Parker slotting two penalties.
The Crusaders then knuckled down, and after a long, patient buildup, Crotty sliced through a buckling defensive with a burst of pure pace to push the margin out to a more comfortable 21-11 buffer with his second try in the 57th minute.
Winger Mataele made it a 15-point gap five minutes later, latching onto an off-load from centre Tim Bateman near the left corner before cantering over for an easy try.
Rookie Stratton blew out the score-line with his first try for the Crusaders, whose title defence is building nicely heading into the business end of the season. (Reporting by Ian Ransom in Melbourne; Editing by Amlan Chakraborty)