Late counter saves Force

The Force rallied late to salvage a 23-all draw with the Crusaders in Christchurch.

The Force hit back from 20-3 down and ultimately will feel that they’ve missed an opportunity to win in Christchurch, rather than being content in the knowledge that they were outplayed by a better side.

The Crusaders will lament a late missed penalty by Stephen Brett, his fifth penalty miss of the match, and wonder how they relinquished such a substantial lead.

Last year the Saders would have blitzed the Force with the lead they had, but this is certainly not a side of that quality. They’ve failed to win in four matches, and with the Waratahs laying in wait in Sydney next week it’s not going to get any easier.

Force coach John Mitchell described their 31-13 defeat to the Hurricanes last week as “complete rubbish”, but one suspects his assessment of this display, particularly in the second half, will be different.

Initially they were only as good as the Saders allowed them to be and they were made to survive on scraps. But they were galvanised by the outstanding Matt Giteau, who scored 13 points and had a hand in crafting both their tries.

On the evidence of their first half display the Saders looked set to break their three-game losing streak. No team can play without the ball and for the first 30 minutes the Crusaders starved the visitors of possession by refusing to kick. The tactic paid dividends as they raced to a significant half-time lead courtesy of three well worked tries, two of which were converted, and a penalty.

If Saders coach Todd Blackadder takes anything out of this game it must be that, despite his goal-kicking failings, his team are infinitely better with Brett at flyhalf. He controlled the flow of the game well, marshalling a backline that shifted a heavy Force pack across the track time and time again. It was a purposeful tactic to circumvent their understrength pack, and was one that worked.

When the Force did manage to string phases together they looked dangerous. Their strength has always been in their structured approach, where Giteau is the fulcrum around which the team plays. Kid Dynamite was consistently threatening, busting the line or committing defenders, and in doing so freeing up space for those around him.

Sadly, but familiarly for the Perth franchise, Giteau was the lone standout in a team of mediocre performers. As it had in Wellington last week, poor fundamental skills in good areas of the field ensured the Force blunted their potency significantly. The Saders punished them for one such error late in the first half, turning over in their 22m and launching a sweeping attack which saw the ball pass through numerous pairs of hands before Isaac Ross crossed in the corner.

Given their lengthy injury list and diabolical performance against the Highlanders last week, expectations of the hosts were tempered and not even the most optimistic of Saders fans would have bet that their side would have been chasing the four-try bonus-point 35 minutes into the match. Yet, the scoreline was a fair reflection of their dominance to that point and they would have been confident of bagging the five points early in the second half.

However, they failed to find the rhythm they had in the first half and the Force dragged themselves back into the contest through a Giteau-inspired try. The flyhalf sold a sublime dummy and cut the line, veered left and floated a pass out to the touchline where Haig Sare grasped the pill to score.

The Saders’ problems were compounded when they lost Leon MacDonald to the sin-bin and the Force capitalised immediately with Giteau again at the centre of all that was good about his team, this time producing a superb offload in contact to send James O’Connor home. Giteau converted, and with 10 minutes to go the Force were favourites to win with the scores tied at 23-all.

Then came Brett’s goal-kicking gaff as he pushed an easy kick wide. Heads sunk on the Saders bench and the Force sensed an opportunity to snatch victory. It wasn’t to be though, as the Saders mustered enough resolve to repel their charges.

By Ryan Vrede