CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand (AP) — The defending champion Crusaders sealed first place on the Super Rugby table by beating the Highlanders 45-22 on Friday.
Tries immediately before and after halftime helped the Christchurch-based Crusaders to their 13th win in 15 matches at the start of the penultimate regular-season round. That ensures the Crusaders, chasing their ninth Super Rugby title and their second in succession, will enjoy home advantage throughout the eight-team playoffs.
Also, Crusaders prop Wyatt Crockett became the first Super Rugby player to clock 200 appearances.
"It's always tough after the break (for June tests) but it's been good this week to get everyone back together and to get back to our way," Crusaders captain Sam Whitelock said. "It was a big game for (Crockett) playing his 200th. The boys had a bit of emotion and it was awesome to see that on the defensive side."
Also, the Queensland Reds beat the Melbourne Rebels 37-23 after leading 24-17 at halftime. The result means the New South Wales Waratahs can clinch first place in the Australian conference with a win on Saturday over Japan's Sunwolves.
The Crusaders made an explosive beginning, scoring from their first extended possession. But the first half was relatively close until they scored two minutes after the halftime hooter to take a 25-17 lead to the break. They scored again three minutes into the second half to make their lead safe at 32-17.
Flyhalf Richie Mo'unga scored the try which opened the second half and made the break and threw a width-of-the-field pass which created a second try for winger George Bridge.
Mo'unga also kicked five conversions and three penalties, finishing with 24 points in a virtuoso performance.
From the kickoff, the Crusaders held the ball through 18 phases before scoring through Bridge. Crockett took the field for his 200th match as an injury replacement after only six minutes and played a part in the try immediately before halftime to lock Scott Barrett.
The Highlanders managed to close within a point at 18-17 with a try to fullback and captain Ben Smith but the Crusaders were too strong and remain favorites to win Super Rugby.