JOHANNESBURG (AP) — The Crusaders won a record-extending eighth Super Rugby title on Saturday, beating the 14-man Lions 25-17 in another supremely efficient performance by the southern hemisphere's most successful club team.
The Crusaders were helped significantly by a first-half red card to Lions flanker Kwagga Smith for a tackle in the air on Crusaders fullback David Havili, who was flipped over by the collision and landed dangerously on his neck and shoulder area. South African referee Jaco Pyper had no option under World Rugby's new safety guidelines but to issue a red to Smith.
But even before the 39th-minute sending off, the Crusaders led 12-3 through early tries by wing Seta Tamanivalu and center Jack Goodhue. No. 8 Kieran Read scored their third three minutes into the second half and the Crusaders were smart enough, and had enough energy left in the tank, to hold out against a late surge by the Lions.
The Crusaders not only conquered the playoff top seeds — who were on a 14-game winning streak — but also Johannesburg's energy-sapping high altitude. It was only the second time in the 21 years of Super Rugby that a team has traveled to a foreign country and won the final.
To underline their pedigree, both of those triumphs have been by the Christchurch-based Crusaders, who last did it 17 years ago when they beat ACT Brumbies in Australia in 2000. Trekking halfway around the world from New Zealand to South Africa was a much bigger challenge, though.
And although it was the Crusaders' 12th appearance in a final, it was their first title for nearly a decade having seen some of their New Zealand rivals win Super Rugby ahead of them in recent seasons.
"No one had us picked from the word go," said Crusaders captain Sam Whitelock. "It was awesome. We just believed in ourselves, started (the season) really well, the energy was amazing, and it's just been an amazing year."
The Crusaders had a 25-3 advantage with just over 15 minutes to go at Ellis Park, but that was cut to eight points after a brave comeback attempt by the Lions with late tries from front-rowers Malcolm Marx and Corne Fourie.
But, when it really mattered in the last five minutes, the Crusaders' vaunted defense held under pressure.
"It's a team thing. Defense is about caring," said Crusaders coach Scott Robertson, who became the first man to win Super Rugby titles as a player and coach. "It's one area where we've been exceptional this year. You win championships in defense and we did that tonight."
Robertson, who won four titles with the Crusaders as a player, celebrated triumph in his debut season as the team's coach with some breakdancing in the middle of a huddle of his players on the field.
The red card probably removed the Lions' home-ground advantage as a factor, and hampered their habit of overrunning teams in the final 20 minutes at Ellis Park when the altitude starts to hit the visitors.
Playing with a man less for more than half the game meant the Lions were nowhere near as dangerous as they normally are. But that was also down to the Crusaders, who were clinical in attack and smart in defense.
The Crusaders struck early, with Tamanivalu making use of turnover ball to stride down the left touchline untouched in the eighth minute. Goodhue scored after a half-break by center Ryan Crotty gave the Crusaders an overlap out wide.
After Smith left, the Crusaders used their numerical advantage to grind down the undermanned Lions' scrum and create points-scoring opportunities for flyhalf Richie Mo'unga, whose two penalties gave the Crusaders enough breathing room for the final 20 minutes.
The Lions won praise for their resistance after having a man sent off in a final, but it was another failed attempt to win a first Super Rugby title for the Johannesburg-based team, which lost to the Hurricanes in last year's final in New Zealand.
"It's not the way we wanted to send off our coach," Lions captain Jaco Kriel said, referring to Johan Ackermann's last game as coach of the Lions before leaving to take over at English club Gloucester.
"Well done to the Crusaders. They are a championship side," Kriel said.
The Crusaders' victory also extended New Zealand's dominance of the southern hemisphere championship. New Zealand teams have now won 15 out of the 22 Super Rugby titles contested since the tournament started in 1996.