2014-07-12 06:42 PM
CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand (AP) -- Flanker Matt Todd scored two tries and Dan Carter kicked 12 points as the Crusaders beat the Highlanders 34-8 to win the New Zealand conference on Saturday and likely seal a home semifinal in the Super Rugby playoffs.
Carter, playing out of position at inside center, landed four penalties and a conversion as the Crusaders posted their 11th win of the season to establish themselves as the best team in a strong New Zealand pool.
They can only be denied a home semifinal if the Durban-based Sharks take a bonus point from their match against the Stormers later Saturday and win that match by more than 36 points.
"We talked about being able to take momentum into the playoffs," Crusaders captain Ryan Crotty said. "We had a stuff-up against the Hurricanes a couple of weeks ago, but we've had a couple of good wins over the Blues and the Highlanders, which gives us that momentum going into the finals.
"It's been a good couple of weeks. The boys have had that edge in training. We've talked a lot about preparing generally and the guys feel pretty excited about what they can achieve."
Despite the defeat, the Highlanders are playoff-bound for the first time in 12 years, playing either the Crusaders or Sharks in next weekend's first round.
Todd scored his tries in almost identical fashion in a four-minute span on either side of halftime, first giving the Christchurch-based Crusaders a 17-3 lead at the break, then a 24-3 lead at the start of the second half.
On both occasions, the Crusaders won penalties, kicked to the corner, won the lineout and drove through the Highlanders' ragged defense to score.
Fijian winger Nemani Nadolo then scored in the 48th minute for the Crusaders' third try in a nine-minute burst, putting the match well out of reach.
The Highlanders scored a try through winger Richard Buckman in the 66th minute after several minutes of intense pressure finally created a breach in the Crusaders' wall.
Hooker Corey Flynn then scored the Crusaders' fourth try and critical bonus point in the 72nd minute. It was his 20th Super Rugby try in 148 matches for the Crusaders.
The Crusaders still look considerably less dominant this season than they have in past years they racked up seven Super Rugby titles. They have outstanding players, but lack strength across the field and are noticeably aging.
The Highlanders, meanwhile, will have a tougher job re-establishing their momentum after back-to-back losses to the New South Wales Waratahs and Crusaders.
"It definitely hurts but we've got a chance, we're in the playoffs and we've got to be better next week," Highlanders captain Nasi Manu said.
Crusaders 34 (Matt Todd 2, Nemani Nadolo, Corey Flynn tries; Dan Carter conversion, 4 penalties), Highlanders 8 (Richard Buckman try; Hayden Parker penalty). HT: 17-3