The Crusaders moved up to second spot on the Vodacom Super Rugby log, thanks to a workmanlike 30-7 win over the Western Force in Christchurch on Friday.
But while the home team did receive the rub of the green from the referee, including two penalty tries, they were unable to pick up a valuable bonus point try against a Force side which tried hard but never had enough firepower to beat the seven-time champions.
Crusaders flyhalf Colin Slade added 15 points with the boot as the home side kept up their aim to capture their first Super Rugby title in six years, dealing a blow to the Force’s hopes of making the playoffs in the process.
The Force will complain about their travel schedule, as the match was their third in three countries in 14 days as the competition starts to get to the business end. But they will be the first to admit they were outgunned on the night.
The visitors had no answer in the first half, as Slade slotted two penalties to put the Crusaders 6-0 up and then a beautiful bit of work on the break by All Black maestro Israel Dagg put Johnny McNicholl away for the opening try in the corner.
McNicholl almost had a second a few minutes later after he scored in virtually the same spot, but television replays showed that a Crusaders player had taken out Sias Ebersohn beyond the ruck, with the try being set up through the channel where Ebersohn would have defended.
Slade added another penalty on the stroke of halftime to keep his side easily in the lead.
At 16-0, the Force needed something special early in the second half, and got it when they crossed the tryline early, with Dane Haylett-Petty coming off his wing to burst through in the centre and fall over to score.
It seemed they had turned the corner and with increased possession, the Force looked set to start a comeback into the game.
But too often they put up the phases, but were penalised repeatedly at the breakdown as the Crusaders were deemed to be over the ball quicker, and on several occasions a promising attack was stunted by a turnover or penalty to the home side.
The Crusaders made the Force pay in more ways than one when they got downfield midway in the second half, launching a line-out drive which was pulled down by Sam Wykes, earning the Force lock a yellow card for his effort.
A man down, they were unable to stop the same ploy the second time, forcing referee Mike Fraser to award a penalty try when the maul collapsed again.
The game was stopped for a long period after Nick Cummins made a try-saving tackle to deny McNicholl a second try, with No 8 Angus Cottrell stretchered off with a bad-looking ankle injury.
With the clock ticking down, the Crusaders launched a big scrum three times, with the third penalty infringement resulting in the second penalty try, and a positive end to the game for the home side.
While they may drop down after the rest of the weekend’s games, the seven-time champions certainly will be a team to deal with as the playoffs arrive.
Crusaders – Tries: Johnny McNicholl, Penalty try (2).Conversions:Colin Slade.(3) Penalties:Slade(3).
Force –Try: Dane Haylett-Petty. Conversion: Sias Ebersohn