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Crusaders beat Highlanders 38-14 in Super Rugby playoff

CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand (AP) — A powerful scrum and flawless performance from fly-half Richie Mo'unga carried the Crusaders to a 38-14 win over the Highlanders in a Super Rugby quarterfinal on Friday, moving them a step closer to a third consecutive title.

The Crusaders pack out-muscled the Highlanders, who were reduced to 14-men by the sin-binning of flanker Liam Squire just after halftime. Mo'unga scored two tries and was perfect in goal-kicking — five goals from five attempts — to finish with 20 points as the Christchurch-based Crusaders remained unbeaten in home playoff matches.

The Dunedin-based Highlanders scrambled throughout the match, scoring the first try, and trailed 17-14 at halftime. But the loss of All Blacks back rower Squire for a no-arms tackle in the 45th minute came at huge cost as the Crusaders split the defense with two powerful surges from lineouts to create tries for back rower Whetu Douglas and replacement prop Michael Ala'alatoa.

Both were converted by Mo'unga and gave the Crusaders a commanding 31-14 lead by the time Squire returned. "We knew it was going to be tough. Quarterfinals are always tough," Crusaders captain Sam Whitelock said. "Having a game against your neighbor amplifies that.

"My boys really showed up, had a great week and nailed the things we needed to n ail." The Crusaders entered the quarterfinals as the top-ranked team after finishing in first place, while the Highlanders finished eighth to sneak into the playoffs.

The disparity between the teams was on show for most of the match as the Crusaders looked calm, decisive under pressure and in control, while the Highlanders seemed to always be just hanging on in defense.

The Crusaders also got every favorable decision from South African referee Jaco Peyper, who awarded a try to Highlanders lock Jason Hemopo in the seventh minute then disallowed it on the advice of the television match referee.

The decision to award a yellow card against Squire was harsh, when a penalty would have been a fairer sanction, and the try to Douglas came from a rolling maul which did not appear to have been legally established. The Highlanders complained bitterly but were over-ruled.

Peyper also ruled a forward pass in another potential try-scoring movement by the Highlanders in the second half and then penalized them when they complained. None of those decisions changed the result as the Crusaders were clearly the better team, setting up their win through the power of their pack. But the deep understanding and combination of their backs was also clearly evident.

The defense was also superb, holding the Highlanders scoreless in the second half. Mo'unga was man of the match scoring in the 28th minute off a pass from Douglas and again in the 70th to crown the Crusaders' win.

"We prepared to come up here and give it our best shot and we were in it for most of that game," Highlanders captain Luke Whitelock said. "But obviously we didn't quite keep the pressure on."

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