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Crusaders beat Blues 26-15 in Super Rugby Aotearoa

CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand (AP) — The Christchurch-based Crusaders showed champion qualities when they soaked up enormous pressure and then rallied to beat the Blues 26-15 Saturday in a match between previously unbeaten teams in Super Rugby Aotearoa.

The 11-time Super Rugby champions didn’t hit the front until the 61st minute when Crusaders replacement scrumhalf Mitchell Drummond scored their first try. Until then they trailed a dominant Blues team, only staying in the match through the goalkicking of flyhalf Richie Mo’unga who landed six goals from six attempts for 16 points.

The Crusaders took the bold step of benching their top try-scorer this season, winger Will Jordan. But he came off the bench in the second half to score his fifth try of the season in the 75th minute.

Both teams came into the game with 3-0 records in the New Zealand professional tournament. That made the match a contest for top spot in the competition and a test of the Blues’ resurgence after long seasons of under-performance.

The Auckland-based Blues haven’t won a Super Rugby title since 2003 and haven’t won in Christchurch since 2004 or finished higher than ninth in the southern hemisphere tournament in the last eight years. They were 13th last year and 14th the year before.

Their unbeaten start this season, and a new sense of energy and purpose instilled by coach Leon MacDonald, raised fans’ hopes that they had again become title contenders. But they showed familiar failings Saturday.

The Blues scored a contentious try through center Rieko Ioane in the 55th minute to lead 15-9, then faded on that lead when the Crusaders finished strongly in the last quarter.

“It’s 80 minutes,” Crusaders captain Codie Taylor said. “They put us under a lot of pressure.

“We knew that they were going to come at us in terms of territory and they did that and they were on top for most of the game. We just knew if we came out in the second half and won those little moments we’d get the job done.”

The Blues had been able to dictate the game for the first three quarters by making good use of their strong ball-carriers, Hoskins Sotutu, Akira Ioane and winger Mark Telea, who scored their first try in the 10th minute.

Their immensely powerful defense set back the Crusaders and knocked them off the game, denying them continuity of possession on which their game depends.

It was only in the final quarter that the Blues began slipping off tackles and making errors of discipline when they found themselves pinned against their own line.

They were fortunate to be awarded Rieko Ioane’s try which came from a quickly tapped penalty by his brother Akira Ioane. The penalty stemmed from a 5-meter scrum incorrectly awarded to the Blues.

The Crusaders seemed energized from that moment. Drummond’s go-ahead try came when Mo’unga’s long pass found George Bridge in space and the winger passed infield to the scrumhalf.

Jordan scored after running onto a delayed pass from Mo’unga and cutting through the Blues’ inside defense.

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More AP sports: https://apnews.com/apf-sports and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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