Crusaders shine despite losing stars
A constant worry line in New Zealand rugby is “what happens to the All Blacks if Dan Carter and Richie McCaw get injured?”
It’s a fair enough question, and let’s face it – most teams around the world have a player or two that they really don’t want to be without.
When Carter joined Richie McCaw and rising star Sam Whitelock on the sideline for the clash with the Bulls, many wondered what would happen to the Crusaders, and whether this represented a great chance for the Bulls to make it two from two in New Zealand.
The Crusaders' response underlined the strength they have in depth, and their resolve to rise above the extraordinary challenges they face this season.
It certainly helped that the Bulls picked a bad night to turn in a dud performance.
A late surge of possession meant the Bulls ended up with an even split of ball, they shaded the set pieces, won the penalty count 11-9, and spent nearly seven minutes in the Crusaders' 22 compared to just over one in their own, and yet couldn’t trouble the scorers.
They came up against a resolute and at times brutal Crusaders defence, and also suffered through a lack of variation in their back play. Compounding that was their own mistakes – an incredible number of dropped passes.
The ironic thing was that after all the talk about contrasts of styles (guilty, your honour) the Crusaders actually used some very Bulls-like tactics, with the aforementioned physical stuff, and the fact that they actually kicked the ball more than the Bulls.
But rather than put it high and try and force a mistake on the end of it, they kicked deep into Bulls territory, confident that someone would either run it straight back at them, or kick it back. It worked a treat.
It’s certainly not the end of the world for the Bulls. I would give them a good chance of beating the Reds this weekend.
Firstly the Reds are traveling back from South Africa after a bruising win over the Stormers. It is a widely held belief that West to East travel is harder to recover from.
Secondly the Bulls know that a win will guarantee at least a 50-50 success rate on their road trip and that would be fine.
And thirdly it must be that some of those celebrated Bulls players know they are not playing to their potential and a hard-won title might be starting to slip away. They simply have to improve. You get the feeling that some of them are a bit jaded and could do with some down time, but right now Frans Ludeke’s hands might be tied.
I must admit I could scarcely believe the result from Cape Town.
We’ve been saying on ReUnion for the past couple of weeks that the Reds hadn’t really played any decent opposition yet (apart from the Waratahs who smoked them), and they’d be no match for the Stormers.
Well that theory sure went out the window.
Most surprisingly, all the things that the Stormers have been doing so well, like their aggressive play at the breakdown, their tactical kicking and so on, the Reds managed to do better.
The Stormers too, were their own worst enemy, with two needless yellow cards for indiscipline and giving Quade Cooper five penalty shots at goal. The Reds conceded a lot more penalties but were smart enough to commit most of them out of Peter Grant's kicking range.
Cooper is a dangerous player, with some similar characteristics to Carlos Spencer. He can make the game look easy to the point where it almost seems like he is taking the mickey, and that doesn’t go down well with opposition players, some of whom have no doubt marked his card for future reference.
When he is “on” he is lethal, but he can drop some real clangers under pressure, and can be a turnstile on defence, as England found late last year.
I suspect the Bulls will try and send a lot of traffic his way.