Super Rugby Pacific: Five takeaways from Blues v Crusaders including Richie Mo’unga getting the better of Beauden Barrett again

David Skippers

Following the Crusaders’ 34-28 triumph over the Blues in Auckland on Saturday, Planet Rugby picks out five takeaways from the action.

Richie Mo’unga outshines Beauden Barrett again

Like most matches between the sides, the battle between these two All Blacks playmakers was one of the highlights of the game with both Mo’unga and Barrett vital cogs in their respective teams’ machines.

With the Rugby World Cup looming on the horizon, this was an early audition for the All Blacks’ number 10 jersey and just like last year’s final, Mo’unga came out on top after another excellent performance.

Barrett made a bright start to the match and was at the heart of everything that was good about the Blues‘ attacking play. His combination with Tuivasa-Sheck tested the Crusaders‘ defence during the early stages of the opening period and they created genuine try-scoring opportunities, with the inside centre crossing for one of the home side’s five-pointers.

Mo’unga took a while to get going but, once he was in the game, he was controlling proceedings and that’s when the Crusaders are at their most dangerous. In the latter stages of the half he put Leicester Fainga’anuku in the clear for his first try and then showed his class early in the second period with a perfectly weighted cross-field kick to Fainga’anuku – from close to his try-line and with the game on a knife’s edge – in the build-up to the wing’s third five-pointer.

Never write off the Crusaders

Although it’s still early in the season, the men from Christchurch came into this encounter under pressure after losing two of their previous three matches – against the Chiefs and Fijian Drua.

Crusaders boss Scott Robertson is amongst the favourites to take over the All Blacks’ coaching reins after this year’s Rugby World Cup in France and the Crusaders’ detractors have pointed out that Robertson’s ambition to coach at international level has been a distraction for him and his team at Super Rugby Pacific level.

Adding to that is the fact that they have been decimated by injuries with Will Jordan, David Havili, Jack Goodhue and Fletcher Newell amongst their All Blacks who missed the clash with the Blues while other stalwarts like Mitchell Dunshea and Oli Jager are also sidelined for the long term.

Super Rugby Pacific’s defending champions showed, however, that they have plenty of depth in their ranks as they took the fight to their arch rivals at Eden Park and came out on top in the end.

Great attacking play and defence from both sides

Both sides deserve credit for making this match the entertaining spectacle that it was and from the outset the spectators at Eden Park were royally entertained.

This encounter had it all. End-to-end action from start to finish, lots of tries – as the Crusaders eventually walked off the field with a five-to-four triumph – and great defence, with big hits flying in from both sides throughout the contest.

As far as the attacking play goes, there were two moments of individual brilliance which stand out. In the eighth minute, Mark Telea left his stamp on the match when he set off on a mazy run from 10 metres inside his half and beat several defenders before crossing for the opening try. And early in the second half, Mo’unga set up Fainga’anuku’s brilliant finish with his teasing diagonal kick from deep inside his 22.

And then there were those two tries from the home side which were ruled out after brilliant tackles from the visitors. First, Willi Heinz did brilliantly to deny James Tucker with a brilliant cover tackle while the lock was crossing the whitewash in the 70th minute and three minutes before full-time the former England scrum-half and Mo’unga combined to deny Hoskins Sotutu while he was crossing the whitewash. Match-defining moments which proved the difference between victory and defeat in the end.

Hoskins Sotutu is the real deal

The Blues have several outstanding players in their ranks and the likes of Telea and Caleb Clarke had some wonderful moments – especially during the opening half – but Sotutu deserves plenty of credit after coming to the fore with an outstanding all-round performance.

The All Black number eight was one one of the Blues’ star performers in their away victory against the Hurricanes in Wellington last week and on Saturday he continued where he left off in that clash with another excellent all-action display.

He was in the thick of the action from the outset and provided plenty of headaches to the Crusaders’ defence with some barnstorming attacking runs. He eventually finished with 118 metres gained from a whopping 21 carries which included two clean breaks, five defenders beaten and four offloads. Sotutu was also also a menace at the breakdown and did well on defence as he made eight tackles. A great effort and timely reminder to the All Blacks selectors of his ability.

Leicester Fainga’anuku is back to his best

The 23-year-old was one of the Crusaders’ star performers during their victorious campaign in last year’s inaugural Super Rugby Pacific tournament but, like most of the defending champions’ players, he has made an underwhelming start to the 2023 season.

Fainga’anuku started the champions’ first two matches against the Chiefs and Highlanders and, apart from a try in the latter stages of the win over the Dunedin-based outfit in Round Two, he has not set the world alight during the current campaign.

He was left out of the Crusaders’ matchday squad for their defeat to the Fijian Drua in Lautoka last weekend but came out firing against the Blues and he was one of the best players on the field in this encounter.

Fainga’anuku finished with a match-high 121 metres gained which included eight runs with two clean breaks, five defenders beaten, a couple of offloads and he was rewarded a hat-trick of tries for his efforts. A timely return to form and it’s no coincidence that the Crusaders also ended the match as winners.

READ MORE: WATCH: Leicester Fainga’anuku’s brilliant try sets up Crusaders’ victory over Blues