The back-to-back defending champions dictated play on Saturday, holding 60 per cent of possession and making 46 fewer tackles as they repeatedly won the battle of the breakdown.
A first-half injury to Jordan Petaia’s foot or ankle could also prove cause for concern, with the emerging Reds centre to have scans after it was crushed in a tackle.
“Out of respect we brought them and I’m glad we did, they were exceptional tonight,” Crusaders coach Scott Robertson said of the decision not to rest one or both of his star forwards.
Twice in the second half the Crusaders pushed over from close-range line-outs to seal the contest, with the first of those coming via Whetu Douglas following a 22-phase sequence.
Scott Higginbotham came off the bench to score late for the Reds and deny the visitors a bonus point after they were forced to play the final six minutes with just 14 players.
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Starting No.10 Richie Mo’unga had returned to the field to replace Mitch Hunt, who had suffered an injury most thought to be a head knock.
Officials didn’t agree though, and with all their reserves used up Mo’unga was forced back off the ground in a curious move Robertson said would be investigated by the side.
Reds coach Brad Thorn said his side’s kicking game needed improvement, not abandoning as they sought to find a balance of styles in their own half.
“It felt like we got opportunities with ball and we turned it straight back over,” he said.
“When we hold the ball … things can happen.”
Jack Goodhue’s clever cross-field kick found Braydon Ennor all alone on the wing for the Cantabrians’ first, before fullback Will Jordan finished a sequence that stretched 80 metres and saw eight sets of hands.
Samu Kerevi’s decision not to take a shot at goal in the 35th minute paid off though, with the Reds captain slicing through to make it 7-10 at the break.
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