The Crusaders secured a semi-final berth with an emphatic 40-22 victory over the Brumbies in Christchurch.
The Crusaders’ were impressive in a losing effort against the Bulls last week, and they upped the ante significantly in pursuit of a coveted prize, comprehensively outplaying a very good Brumbies side to march into the play-offs for the ninth successive year.
In rugby circles there is constant discourse about the concept of peaking at the right time, and on the evidence of last week’s performance at Loftus and this evening’s devastatingly clinical showing, the Crusaders seem to be operating at optimal efficiency in all facets of play, especially defence, at a point in the tournament when they most need to.
They were intensely physical at the collisions, frighteningly quick and largely incisive in attacking play to pummel the Brumbies into submission. Kicking was seemingly seen as a cowardly tactic, with ball in hand sizzle preferred to a boot to ball bore.
Never was the latter characteristic more prominent than in the Crusaders’ opening try. The bulk of the credit has to be attributed to Zac Guildford, who exhibited strength and appreciable pace in slicing through four tackles and making 40m before firing a pass wide. The quickness of hand and support play thereafter was vintage Crusaders, and the try, scored by Sean Maitland, will rival the one Bryan Habana scored against the Chiefs earlier this season for the best five pointer of the tournament.
Dan Carter converted, but the lead was a short-held one, as Tyrone Smith intercepted a Daniel Bowden pass four minutes later with Matt Giteau adding the extras to level the scores.
The try was a direct result of the pressure the Brumbies were exerting through their speed off the defensive line. Certainly the Crusaders were dominating the gain line battle as well as the scrums, giving them an excellent attacking platform. However, with the adrenalin probably fuelling their sense of adventure after their superlative opening try, they were naive to believe the tournament’s second best defensive unit would succumb to the same sucker punch.
The Crusaders have consistently displayed the ability to make tactical adjustments mid-game, and they were seldom put under the pump for sustained periods. Indeed it would be the seven-time champions who grabbed the initiative in the manner the Brumbies had sought to do – pressure defence – and they struck a double blow to floor the Brumbies.
The first came after a turnover on the Crusaders’ 10m line where a spilled ball found its way to Guildford whose grubber kick was chased down by Kieran Read. Carter missed the conversion, but his goal kicking struggles (he’d kicked one from four attempts at that point) were plastered over when Owen Franks rounded off another clinical, sweeping move, which was yet again birthed from a Brumbies turnover. Carter made no mistake with the conversion.
The Canberra franchise needed to muscle up on defence to halt the momentum the Crusaders’ ball carriers were generating, while their attack was being undermined by fundamental handling errors and the inability protect the ball through more than a couple of phases. Neither of those improvements materialised before the break, and Carter and Giteau traded penalties which left the score at 22-10 going down the tunnel.
It was a commanding lead for the Crusaders, but one that could have been an imposing one had they finished opportunities they had crafted prior to half-time, and when Benn Alexander touched down following a move that surged down the left touchline then swung right, that wastefulness looked costly.
However, the Crusaders’ rebuttal was emphatic and proved that they are equally adept at striking with the rapier as they are with the sledgehammer. They punched up through the phases in the red zone, depleting the Brumbies’ defensive resolve with every phase until Richie McCaw powered over the line for the all-important bonus-point try. Carter judged the wind expertly in his conversion attempt, and at 29-17 the Brumbies were faced with the prospect of pulling off a spectacular rearguard to salvage their campaign.
Maitland missed the opportunity to bury the visitors when he knocked on in the act of touching down. But advantage was being played and Carter slotted the kick to ease the youngster’s disappointment.
It was always going to be a holding job for the Crusaders thereafter, and they defended with the certainty of a team who must now be considered serious title contenders, even if they will probably have to contest a semi-final in South Africa.
There were to be tries for Guildford, who was utterly deserving of one for an excellent performance, and Huia Edmonds, and a memorable moment when George Smith lined up the conversion in his final act for the Brumbies. But the show belonged to the Crusaders, who will take some beating.
By Ryan Vrede