It came a week earlier than most would have liked, but the Crusaders have emerged from round nine of Super Rugby Aotearoa as inaugural champions of the Kiwi domestic league.

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Needing just a win to get past a visiting Highlanders side full of intent, Scott Robertson’s men were put under the pump for the majority of the contest before a yellow card to Sio Tomkinson and a pair of George Bridge tries swung the momentum drastically.

The 32-22 result leaves the Blues and Hurricanes out of contention to budge the Crusaders out of top spot, making this week’s highly-anticipated Blues vs Crusaders re-match at Eden Park effectively a dead rubber.

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The Hurricanes, meanwhile, will travel to Dunedin to take on the Highlanders after condemning the Chiefs to a winless campaign on Saturday.

Their 31-18 victory at Sky Stadium in Wellington means the Chiefs have lost all eight of their games for the season, putting an end to a horror run of results in Warren Gatland’s maiden year with his hometown franchise.

With all that in mind, here are the five best performers from the weekend gone by.

Shannon Frizell (Highlanders)

Bruising, confrontational and utterly destructive on either side of the ball.

That’s one way you could describe Shannon Frizell, who has been playing like a man possessed for the Highlanders this year.

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That hot run of form didn’t diminish against the Crusaders either – just ask first-five Richie Mo’unga.

The star first-five felt the full brunt of Frizell’s powerhouse ability on attack, used as nothing more than a hit shield en route to the loose forward’s opening minute try before being ploughed over the top of during a charging run later in the second half.

Finishing the match with 46 running metres, three defenders beaten, two clean breaks and a whopping 15 tackles from 16 attempts, there’s little more for the nine-test All Black to prove to Ian Foster with one round to go in Super Rugby Aotearoa.

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Much hype has been centred around Hoskins Sotutu as a potential starter for the national side, but don’t rule out Frizell from partnering Sam Cane and Ardie Savea from the No. 6 jersey in the loose forward mix.

Dillon Hunt (Highlanders)

Often going unnoticed or unheralded for the sheer amount of defensive work he has done throughout the tournament, Dillon Hunt certainly caught the eye with a standout performance against the Crusaders in Christchurch.

Normally flourishing in the defensive aspect of the game, where he shines as a top tackler and constant turnover threat, the one-test All Blacks openside flanker proved his worth with ball in hand on multiple occasions at Orangetheory Stadium.

Running with the ball eight times, Hunt made 50 metres – the most of any Highlanders forward – after beating three defenders and making a clean break.

His imminent presence around the ball proved threatening all game for the Crusaders, but he didn’t abandon his defensive duties either.

Hunt finished the match with 14 tackles – second only to Frizell – and managed to pinch two turnovers in an all-round display that highlighted his workmanlike ability that has been crucial for the Highlanders this season.

Richie Mo’unga (Crusaders)

It would be difficult to leave Richie Mo’unga out of the conversation when discussing who should win the Super Rugby Aotearoa Player of the Year award.

That’s how influential the 26-year-old playmaker has been for the Crusaders in their tilt for a fourth straight title, and he was again in the thick of things against the Highlanders.

He scored one try, assisted another, contributed a further 12 points off the boot and ran for 94 metres, making three clean breaks – one of which was key to George Bridge’s first try and another that should have been finished by Bryn Hall – in doing so.

Add to that his nine tackles from 11 attempts and turnover steal to boot, and the statistics sheet alone indicates how valuable a player Mo’unga is to both the Crusaders and New Zealand rugby.

That’s not even taking into account the intangibles, like his composure on the ball, ability to control the game and innate vision, and it’s a mix of all those factors that has led many nationwide to call for him to start at the All Blacks’ No. 10.

Peter Umaga-Jensen (Hurricanes)

Speaking of All Blacks selection, is it too late in Super Rugby Aotearoa for new bolter contenders to state their case for a national call-up?

That seems to be what young Hurricanes midfielder Peter Umaga-Jensen is doing at the moment, as he continued his good form that first skyrocketed against the Crusaders two weeks ago and carried it into Saturday’s clash with the Chiefs.

Within half an hour, the nephew of former All Blacks captain Tana Umaga had bagged a brace of tries, with his bulking 1.87m, 102kg frame difficult for the Chiefs to contain.

In scoring his second, Umaga-Jensen showed he isn’t just a one-trick pony, as it was his pace, vision and distribution that put Wes Goosen into space down the sideline, while it was his follow up play to support his wing that earned him the try.

With Ngani Laumape likely to be out for quite some time with his broken forearm, could Umaga-Jensen be a wildcard replacement for his franchise teammate in Foster’s 35-man squad?

Josh Ioane (Highlanders)

One man who did a world of wonder to advancing his All Blacks selection prospects over the weekend was Josh Ioane, who earned his second straight start for the Highlanders since a lengthy injury lay-off.

His performance against the Crusaders showed no signs of rustiness, though, as he emulated his opposite Mo’unga in the way he played.

Ioane found gaps that few others would have been able to identify, let alone exploit, but that’s exactly what the one-test All Blacks playmaker did to devastating effect.

Whether it was his vision, footwork or passing skill set, the 25-year-old ran the Crusaders amuck, registering 89 running metres, three clean breaks, nine defenders beaten, two offloads and seven points from the boot.

The potential he wields is undeniable, and one would think he’s shown enough of it to win a re-call back into Foster’s squad after missing last year’s World Cup, but Ioane will have one more game in Highlanders colours to state his case against the Hurricanes next week.

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