Sportal.co.nz 28.Apr.2013Getty Images
With two tries in the opening 12 minutes, the seven-time Investec Super Rugby champions looked set to blow the lowly Rebels away, and probably should have, but were made to work for their 30-26 win in Christchurch on Sunday.
Three unanswered Rebels tries - to Scott Higginbotham, James O'Connor and Ged Robinson - saw the visitors hit the front for the first time late in the contest.
It set up a thrilling finish that Crusaders second-five Tom Taylor made sure went the home side's way when he slotted his fifth and sixth penalty goals in the final 10 minutes.
The win saw the Crusaders leapfrog the Hurricanes into third place in the New Zealand conference on 30 points.
The Rebels picked up a bonus point but remain second last in the Australian conference, five points ahead of the Force.
Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder breathed a little easier after the final siren sounded; another 'banana skin' loss, after slipping up against the Force a fortnight ago, looked on the cards for most of the second half.
With a strong southerly at their backs, the Rebels stormed into the match when O'Connor and Robinson crossed the whitewash within the space of five minutes in the second half.
The AMI Stadium faithful are certainly used to an expansive running style of rugby, but there would have been a few raised eyebrows as they watched their champions being constantly stretched to their limit by the impressive Rebels.
O'Connor was the catalyst for a number of searing line breaks and was more than comfortable in Kurtley Beale's play-making role.
His kicking combination with New Zealand-born fullback Jason Woodward was in excellent form and secured handy field position at crucial times.
A brilliant solo effort to score in the 50th minute pulled the Rebels to within striking distance before Robinson crashed over from a lineout.
Last year's embarrassing defeat in Melbourne is a touchy subject in red-and-black country; as Zac Guildford and first-five Tyler Bleyendaal crossed for early tries it was clear the visitors were not going to be taken lightly this time.
Without a functioning lineout and numerous handling errors ruining their attack, the Rebels overcame the adversity and hit back when Higginbotham muscled his way over from a ruck near the line.
Taylor kept the Crusaders in the hunt with his 20 points from kicks while O'Connor would have rued three missed opportunities to add to his 11 points with the boot.
He will also want to forget a defensive lapse that allowed Bleyendaal to score from a scrum five metres out.
Guildford was only too happy to notch his first try of the season when the home side counter attacked from with their own 22 in the fifth minute.
It gave home fans a false sense that the win was theirs so early in the match.
Things got uncomfortable as the Rebels were able to create more turnovers and caused the Crusaders to miss more tackles in the opening half.
Their ball security and technique at the breakdown will require some work before next week's trip to Canberra, where master pilferer George Smith and the Brumbies await them.
Dan Carter should be primed for that clash after pulling through his 20-minute cameo unscathed.
The only injury concern was a knock to hooker Corey Flynn that saw him replaced shortly after half time.
Crusaders: 30 (Zac Guildford, Tyler Bleyendaal tries; Taylor con, 6 pen)
Rebels: 26 (Scott Higginbotham, James O'Connor, Ged Robinson tries; O'Connor con, 3 pen)