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CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand (AP) — New Zealand champions the Crusaders are unlikely to appear in the final of the trans-Tasman Super Rugby competition after struggling to a 29-21 win over Australia’s Western Force on Friday at the start of the tournament’s fourth round.

The Christchurch-based Crusaders came into the round one point behind the co-leaders — the Auckland-based Blues and Wellington-based Hurricanes — and needing a bonus-point win to stay in contention for a finals place in the five-round competition.

They had the vital point, leading by five tries to two, until the final second of the match when the Force scored a try through replacement Jordan Olowofela to deny the Crusaders a three-try margin.

“It’s a bit of a theme, leaking late points,” Crusaders captain Scott Barrett said. “That really hurts in a points race like this.”

The Crusaders rested key players for the match including All Blacks flyhalf Richie Mo’unga, conceded a try after only three minutes and struggled to gain any kind of superiority over the Force.

Tries on either side of halftime by flanker Sione Havili Talitui and fullback Will Jordan lifted the Crusaders to a 29-14 lead and allowed them to hang on as the Force — winless in the first three rounds — played above themselves and mounted a late rally.

Jordan scored two tries and was denied a third for the Crusaders, who miscalculated the strength of the Force’s multinational lineup.

Their team includes Argentinian halves Tomas Cubelli and Domingo Miotti, former All Blacks Richard Kahui and Jeremy Thrush, London-born backrower Ollie Callan and United States-born winger Toni Pulu.

Pulu, who previously played for the Hamilton-based Chiefs and is considered a Wallabies prospect this season, scored the opening try of the match after only three minutes.

The Crusaders rallied with tries by winger Manasa Mataele, Jordan and backrower Whetukamokamo Douglas to lead 17-7 after 28 minutes.

A try by Callan cut the lead to 17-14 just before halftime. But the Crusaders extended the lead when Havili Talitui crashed over just before the break.

Jordan’s second try made the lead 15 points — 29-14 — and that was enough to allow the Crusaders to hang on against the Force, who finished strongly.

The Crusaders mostly had an advantage at set pieces, but the Force spent a lot of time on attack and were only let down by some poor finishing.


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