Crusaders march on as the Blues bow out
The power of Nemani Nadolo is likely to have killed the Blues' Super Rugby title hopes after the Crusaders won a brutal encounter 21-13 in Christchurch tonight.
While the victory should guarantee the Crusaders a place in the playoffs, the Blues, who couldn't even salvage a losing bonus point, appear to have little hope of advancing into the finals and must rely on some wild mathematical permutations to see them through.
If Nadolo was the sledgehammer, the classy Dan Carter was the magical touch inside the velvet glove as he unleashed all his skills at AMI Stadium and set-up the second - and crucial - try by unloading a magical pass for the massive Fijian wing with seven minutes left.
The Crusaders rushed Kieran Read, Israel Dagg, Owen Franks and Carter back for this encounter but it was left wing Nadolo, who scored both tries, who proved the star performer.
At times the only way to describe this battle, which was peppered with messy scrums and mystifying penalties by referee Glen Jackson, was brutal and the Blues will have been shattered to leave the South Island city without a win since 2004.
Both forward packs flayed at each other manfully, whether it be with their clean-outs or big tackles, and one of the most encouraging sights for all New Zealanders was that of Crusaders captain Read proving he is nearing his best following concussion issues.
Read was replaced around the 60 minute mark but his trademark offloads out wide were valuable and he wasn't gun-shy in contact.
Losing Sam Whitelock with a calf muscle injury was a late setback for the home side, coach Todd Blackadder keeping the All Black lock's withdrawal secret until just before kick-off.
Whitelock's exit had the potential to be detrimental to their lineout but his replacement Jimmy Tupou produced a strong performance, contributing with ball carries and clean-outs, while the Blues' Patrick Tuipulotu proved why his international stocks are on the up.
Some of the wrestling around the ruck, where men like Jordan Taufua, Matt Todd, Jerome Kaino and Luke Braid ripped and tore at anything that twitched, was ferocious and Colin Slade was flattened when an attempted tackle on Ma'a Nonu went horribly wrong.
Slade was replaced, allowing Carter to move to first five-eighth after starting at No 12, and his first penalty attempt in around a year for the Crusaders had an immediate impact when it put his side ahead 14-13 in the 67th minute.
The temperature had been about 20 degrees cooler than what he had experienced in the Pacific Islands but Nadolo, who missed the previous weekend's loss to the Hurricanes because he was representing Fiji, still generated immense heat on attack.
With the Crusaders opting to exploit the Blues out wide - the return of Dagg in his comeback game from a knee injury added some much-needed oomph - the 125kg Nadolo was immediately called to arms.
An early touch resulted in him scattering Blues defenders like kicked mushrooms and he collected the Crusaders' only try of the first half when flanker Matt Todd unloaded an excellent pass to put him over in the corner.
There should have been more for the 14,000-strong crowd to celebrate when another ominous Crusaders attack pinned the Blues on their own line and looked certain to score; that was until right wing Frank Halai proved the proverbial gob-stopper by intercepting an Andy Ellis pass and racing 95m to nail a converted try.
That was a major blow for the Crusaders; instead of leading 13-3 with the conversion to come they trailed 10-8.
Slade could have put the Crusaders ahead at halftime but uncharacteristically missed a kickable penalty on the bell after also being unable to convert Nadolo's try and missing an earlier penalty.
Crusaders 21 (Nemani Nadolo 2 tries; Colin Slade 2 pens, Dan Carter pen, con) Blues 13 (Frank Halai try; Ihaia West con, 2 pens). HT: 11-13.
AS IT HAPPENED