A Richie McCaw inspired Crusaders clawed back a 14 point deficit to edge out the Sharks 22-20 in Timaru.
In a game in which the Crusaders feasted on 70% possession and 66% of territory, the tight nature of their victory is indicative both of their own ineptitude on the night, and the bravery of Dick Muir’s young Sharks and the composure of his older brigade.
Like a toddler taken out of the playpen they’ve come to know and cherish, the ‘Saders opening 45 minutes in Timaru was petulant and self-destructive.
This was a side who put 70 past the same opposition last year, but blighted by 18 handling errors the all-conquering Kiwi side were more chump than champ. Percy Montgomery, again delivering an accomplished display from fullback, scored all 13 of the Sharks’ first half points to hand the Durbanites an unexpected seven point advantage at the break.
Montgomery’s intercept score after 26 minutes, his fourth in three games, buoyed the Sharks. His luck struck again straight after the break when an attempted clearance belted into BJ Botha, spooned upwards into the waiting arms of replacement flyhalf Bradley Barrit who tore through disorganised Sader lines to offload to Odwa Ndungane for the second try and 14 point lead with 35 minutes left.
Montgomery’s hand in both scores was fair reward for a towering performance, in which his tactical kicking, positional sense and decision making again sparkled. Whatever the Sharks are paying him, he’s earning every cent.
The same could be said for AJ Venter, the guts and drive of a pack that were not beat until the 74th minute, despite an overwhelming ruck count of 121 to 56 in favour of the home side.
Granite defence and iron will, however, were always going to be insufficient unless the Crusaders failed to shift from first to second gear. That was all it would take, and it was McCaw who put his hand up. Massive all afternoon, he carried the ball up twice in the same movement – both times crossing the advantage line – and sucked in enough defenders for Rico Gear to have the space to finish after 48 minutes.
The score was significant in that, for all their bumbling, the Crusaders were only seven points adrift with over half an hour to play. Pundits will applaud the Sharks for their resilience and fight, and rightly so, but the glaring truth was that a side delivering their most appalling 45 minutes of rugby in over two years were still within a score of taking the lead.
McCaw’s contribution to Gear’s try came amidst five turnovers, 13 tackles and five line-out wins. He is the most accomplished back-rower in the world game.
Whilst captain McCaw’s anger put the Sharks on the ropes, the composure of Carter finished them off. A finally orchestrated backline move put Caleb Ralph in with less than 10 minutes left, reducing the deficit to a solitary point.
It didn’t take long for the home side to work themselves back into Sharks territory. As soon as they did, Carter slotted into the pocket. Bang. Drop-goal, and game over.
The Sharks had tackled for 70 minutes, and despite Muir emptying his bench, the final 10 was 10 too far. They were clinging on by their fingernails, and once the lead was lost it was never going to be regained.
A two point loss suggests that the Durbanites were brave. They were. It does not suggest subservience, and there it is misleading. The Crusaders won this game whilst playing appalling rugby, and therein lies the difference between true contenders for Vodacom Super 14 glory and pretenders living on hope rather than expectation.
Tries: Rico Gear and Caleb Ralph
Pens: Dan Carter 3
Tries: Percy Montgomery and Odwa Ndungane
Cons: Montgomery 2
Pens: Montgomery 2