Crusaders lay down marker in thriller
The Crusaders withstood a late challenge from the fancied Blues to confirm their status as Vodacom Super Rugby favourites with a 19-18 win in an absorbing tournament opener at Eden Park in Auckland on Friday.
For the organisers, it was the perfect way for 2012 to start. Although it rained before the game and periodically during it, the match was action packed and delivered impressive quality for this stage of the new season, with both teams showing why the critics are tipping them not only to challenge each other for New Zealand conference honours, but also for top spot on the overall log.
Compared to what was seen as standard for last year in New Zealand, a large crowd turned out to watch the game, perhaps testament to what the All Black win in the World Cup final at the same stadium four months ago has done for rugby interest in the Land of the Long White Cloud. And although the hosts were denied, the punters who did turn up wouldn’t have been disappointed as the contest was in the balance until the last seconds.
Indeed, it looked for all money that the Blues would win when, with the siren having already sounded, they created good field position for replacement flyhalf Piri Weepu to slot what would have been a winning drop-goal. The strike was clean and, as he was directly in front of the posts, the ball would probably have sailed through were it not for a despairing Crusaders hand that deflected its flight.
It allowed Crusaders to escape with the win, and on balance they might consider themselves a bit fortunate as the Blues did have enough chances to seal the game. That they didn’t can be blamed on the indiscipline that allowed the Crusaders to kick the penalties that kept them in touch on the scoreboard during an opening quarter where the Blues were dominant, as well of course on the calmness under pressure and all-round efficiency of the Christchurch unit.
The Blues made their early pressure count when they charged down a Crusaders clearance in the fifth minute. The advancing Blues players nearly butchered the opportunity but finally flanker Chris Lowrey pounced on the rolling ball just before it reached the dead-ball line. Flyhalf Michael Hobbs converted.
The Crusaders bounced back immediately with a penalty from flyhalf Tyler Bleyendaal, as they did following the next Blues try, which came in the 10th minute after the Blues turned over Crusaders ball at the breakdown and skipper Keven Mealamu produced a perfect catch and pass as he inserted himself in the backs to exploit an overlap opportunity that put wing David Raikuna in at the corner flag.
This video is not available in your region
Hobbs couldn’t convert so when Bleyendaal kicked his penalty the Crusaders were in range at 12-6. Both early penalties came from rank poor discipline from the Blues, but it was great work from the Crusaders that created the converted try that gave them the lead, with patience in the build-up being rewarded with the space that Robbie Freuan needed to go over down the left flank.
Talking of Reuan, the outside centre was impressive on attack throughout the match and showed no signs that he will miss the presence of Sonny Bill Williams, who was his centre partner before moving to the Chiefs in the off-season. Rene Ranger, although responsible for the first penalty given away, was as good for the Blues, while Rudi Wulf made an impressive return to New Zealand rugby after his sojourn in France.
When Freuan went over to score it was at a stage when the rain seemed to be intensifying, and it really pelted down immediately afterwards. Whether this had an impact or not is hard to say, but after that the Blues were unable to protect the ball as well as they had been earlier, and they weren’t helped by 20 minutes of really sloppy lineout work.
This led to territorial advantage for the Crusaders, so when Hobbs was penalised for a high tackle it was in a good position for Bleyendaal to hammer it through the posts to make it 16-12 at the break.
The scrum stood up well on both sides, with both taking turns to create pressure. In fact the scrumming was one of the most pleasing aspects of this game, as we had to wait until the 35th minute for a set-scrum to be reset. When that came it was after a poor lineout throw from Crusaders under pressure near their line, and the Blues might be kicking themselves for not kicking for goal when they were awarded a kickable penalty during the five minutes they spent camping on the Crusaders line immediately before halftime.
The Blues were the more assertive team in the third quarter, and two Hobbs penalties enabled them to regain the lead 18-16 by the 55th minute. After being the more efficient team in the first half, the Crusaders were the ones now making mistakes, but they managed to regroup and the Blues were penalised for off-sides when the Crusaders tried to send wing Israel Dagg in off an inside ball.
Bleyendaal kicked the goal to make it 19-18 to Crusaders with 17 minutes to go, and although the Blues were within inches of winning it at the end, the Crusaders’ territory management was generally too good for their opponents when it counted.
Crusaders were playing without Dan Carter and Richie McCaw and are notoriously slow starters in Super Rugby so to win away from home against a Blues team of which much is expected this year represented an outstanding start to their campaign.
Blues – Tries: Chris Lowrey, David Raikuna. Conversion: Michael Hobbs. Penalties: Hobbs (2).
Crusaders – Try: Robert Fruean. Conversion: Tyler Bleyendaal. Penalties: Bleyendaal (3).