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Crusaders hat-trick hero Leicester Fainga'anuku played through rib injury

By Ben Smith
Leicester Fainga'anuku of the Crusaders dives over to score a try during the round four Super Rugby Pacific match between Blues and Crusaders at Eden Park, on March 18, 2023, in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

The Crusaders 34-28 win over the Blues at Eden Park will go down as an instant classic as both sides put on a show that lit up Super Rugby Pacific.

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With All Black stars across both sides bringing their best in what was the game of the season so far, it was Crusaders left wing Leicester Fainga’anuku who stole the show with a hat-trick of tries to remind selectors of his ability.

The 23-year-old revealed that he was an unlikely start after copping a rib injury against the Highlanders two weeks earlier in the Super round. He was rested against the Drua in the loss in Fiji but was almost ruled out of the final rematch against the Blues.

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“I copped some loose cartilage in the ribs in the Melbourne round,” Fainga’anuku explained to Sky Sport NZ.

“I wasn’t too sure if i would suit up this week but coming up here to play the Blues, it’s a game you always want to be a part of.

“When you care so much for your mates beside you, you will run out there until you are legless.

“Full credit to the doc and physio team for getting me through.”

After a powerful first half hour for the Blues where they built a 21-12 lead and threaten to run away with control before half-time, it was three consecutive tries by the Crusaders wing over the span of 16 minutes that turned the game in the visitors’ favour.

A spin move from second five-eighth Dallas McLeod created the overlap for Fainga’anuku’s first try, Richie Mo’unga made the final pass to put his left wing over in the corner untouched.

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The No 11 had his second try before the break with the Blues down to 13 men off a scrum play to the left that saw a sublime cutout pass by fullback Fergus Burke.

Fainga’anuku showed some acrobatic finishing to dot down just inside the corner flag and gave the Crusaders an unlikely 24-21 lead at half-time.

He might’ve been nursing pain but Fainga’anuku didn’t show it six minutes into the second half when he got the chance to go full throttle, which turned out to be the game’s most pivotal moment.

A deep Blues attacking raid was turned over near the goal line and Mo’unga had the audacity to fire a crossfield kick across the face of his goal posts.

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Fainga’anuku chased down the bouncing ball, scrapping for possession with Roger Tuivasa-Sheck before turning on the afterburners and going the full length of the field.

It was a huge blow for the Blues who had worked into position to score at the other end only to watch the Crusaders strike immediately.

“Playing the Blues we know they are a top quality side and we respect them so much,” he said of the fast paced match.

“The quality of the players they have from number one right through to 23, we’ve got to expect everything and come prepared.

“It’s New Zealand biggest game to be fair, Blues vs Crusaders, and it has been for decades.

“After the loss to the Chiefs and the Drua, this was a game for us to pick our heads back up.

“Really show our DNA, what Crusaders footy is all about. Getting this win means a lot to us, something we can build off.”

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After debuting for the All Blacks last year against Ireland, he quickly found himself out of the Rugby Championship squad before withdrawing from the end-of-year tour.

The hat-trick hero said his sole focus remains on the Crusaders week-in, week-out as he continues to develop his game.

All Blacks selection might be out of his mind but he didn’t do his chances any harm after shining against the Blues own All Black wingers Mark Telea and Caleb Clarke.

“My main focus is on what I can do to impress Razor to get into the 23,” he said.

“At the same time get the opportunity to perform and show all the areas of my game, whether I get the opportunity to play the centre role or compete in rucks.

“Wingers these days you don’t just get to see the power wingers, there is so much more to wing.

“There is so much I’m trying to expand, my aerial game, my ruck game, anything to showcase the toolbox. That’s what I am about.”

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