After a poor start to the game the Crusaders found their feet and beat the Lions 31-6 in front of 16,500 fans at AMI Stadium on Saturday evening.
With seven changes to their starting line up, the Crusaders were always going to need some time to adjust. What was unexpected was that the Lions would come out firing and take the game to the Crusaders.
Playing a very simple game plan, with the ball rarely going past inside centre, the Lions pushed the more fancied Crusader pack around, and made numerous breaks but were unable to cross the goal line. Two penalties to half back Chris Jonck had the visitors leading for most of the first half.
The Crusaders struggled in the set piece early on, failing to claim their own line out ball and going backwards at scrum time. Once the combinations clicked, the home team launched numerous attacking raids, but were stifled by the Lions' swarming defense and came away with just one Hamish Gard penalty.
Stand in captain Reuben Thorne lasted just 20 minutes before leaving the field with what appeared to be a hand injury, prop Greg Sommerville taking over as skipper. The Lions also lost a player in the first half, winger Rayno Benjamin to a yellow card for holding a player back just before half time.
The second half saw a complete turnaround in the Crusaders' tactics and fortunes, switching to a more forward based game and reaping the rewards with two Gard penalties and a try to Sean Maitland in the first ten minutes after the break.
The Lions wilted under the Crusader onslaught and went further behind as Ti'i Paulo and Caleb Ralph extended the lead with tries on opposite sides of the field.
The bonus point try for the Crusaders was one of the most spectacular of the season. After Maitland was cut down centimetres short of the line, a ruck formed in the corner and half back Andy Ellis looked to clear the ball but instead dove over the top of the ruck, placing the ball over the line while upside down in the air.
Ellis said it was something he had been working on, diving over his bed at home and that if the opportunity presented itself, a repeat performance was possible.
Injuries will be a concern for the home team, losing Thorne early in the game, and also losing lock Michael Patterson with a leg injury, forcing fullback Scott Hamilton to play the final ten minutes of the game at blind side flanker.
The Lions were not really allowed to get much rhythm into their game in the second half, and were run off their feet by the fitter Crusaders. Replacement winger Justin St Jerry had to be assisted from the field in the final ten minutes after being knocked out following a head clash with Kieran Reed.
Assistant coach Mark Hammett said he was very happy with the way the team's youngsters played, praising George Whitelock and Steve Atfield in particular but also said he was very happy with the performance of Gard.
The Crusaders now head to Hamilton next weekend where they will hope to keep their unbeaten record intact, while the Lions head to Australia to play the in form Waratahs.