The Crusaders marched towards another Super Rugby title with a 33-22 semi-final victory over the Hurricanes in Christchurch.
The Saders resumed their run towards a seventh trophy in the competition’s history with a comprehensive beating of the Canes. Don’t let the scoreline deceive you, two tries in the last five minutes from the Canes gave the victory margin some respectability, as the Saders had led 33-8 before they went into cruise control.
The semi was dubbed an unofficial All Black trial and certain players would have proved a few valuable points to Graham Henry. Eighthman Mose Tuiali’i did his chances no harm as he was a massive presence around the breakdown – with ball in hand around the fringes and in turning over possession – as well as in his general play. Casey Laulala at outside centre was also very productive, as he often appeared wide out on the wing and he continuously evaded tacklers.
For the Canes 19-year-old Zac Guildford could be a surprise inclusion after he was his team’s best attacking weapon. Crusaders coach Robbie Deans’s decision to start with Tim Bateman instead of Stephen Brett was vindicated as he shut out Ma’a Nonu at No. 12 all night. Nonu didn’t have a bad game, but he couldn’t make any of his usual busts and this quiet display was atypical from the centre.
A frantic start to the match ensued, and the game was played at a furious pace throughout. Both sides were willing to give it air and there weren’t many breaks in play, as line-outs especially were not in abundance.
Guildford scored in the fourth minute after he charged down a Dan Carter kick, and all he had to do from there was dive on the ball. From there on it was all the Crusaders however. Hooker Corey Flynn went off inside 15 minutes with a suspected broken arm but it didn’t disrupt the Saders in the least.
The Saders dominated territory (they had 88% of it after 30 minutes) and possession after the Canes’ try. It all came about from their strong scrum which put the Canes pack under enormous pressure. It also didn’t help that Chris Masoe was playing in the unfamiliar position of No. 8 (due to Rodney So’oialo’s injury), and his combination with scrumhalf Piri Weepu was tested. Their communication wasn’t good enough, and numerous passes went astray between the two, and the consequence was that the Canes couldn’t get out of their 22.
The Saders eventually made this pressure tell two minutes before half-time with a Leon MacDonald try after spending over 15 minutes in the Canes 22 during the half. They went into the shed 13-8 up, but this was nowhere near as much a return as they would’ve hoped for. The Canes’ scrambling defensive effort must be lauded, as they won turnovers at vital times.
The pressure on the Canes from the first half began to tell as their defence began to wane in the second stanza. All their relieving kicks were straight down field and didn’t have sufficient chasers – all they did was put more pressure on themselves with their poor tactical use of the boot. The Saders countered with their usual precision, and whoever plays them in the final will have to make better use of the kick – rather putting it into space than into the Saders’ hands.
MacDonald got a second score, and a Carter (who kicked seven from seven) penalty gave the Saders a 15-point lead heading into the final quarter. The Canes had to play typical catch-up rugby, which meant running from deep in their own half, and this resulted in more pressure being put on themselves. With 10 minutes remaining flank Kieran Read got a try from this territorial advantage.
The Canes got two late consolation tries, but the Saders defence looked impenetrable when it counted. The team that plays them in the final will need to find an innovative way to breach their line.
Crusaders – Tries: Leon MacDonald (2), Kieran Read. Conversion: Dan Carter (3). Penalties: Carter (4).
Hurricanes – Tries: Zac Guildford, Jeremy Thrush, Neemia Tialata. Conversions: Jimmy Gopperth, Jerry Collins. Penalty: Piri Weepu.
By Grant Ball