Crusaders down stuttering Blues

RYAN VREDE writes the Crusaders improved their chances of a home semi-final and all but ended the Blues’ hopes of hosting one with a 23-16 victory in Timaru.

It wasn’t pretty, but the victory was crucial for the Crusaders in the context of the play-off race. The seven-time champions will now hope for favours from the Force and Bulls later today, then will have to ensure they don’t slip up against the Hurricanes next week to set up a home fixture in three weeks time.

The Blues, given how they’ve played in the second half of the season, have only themselves to blame for what now will surely be an away quarter-final. They could potentially miss out on the play-offs altogether if other results go against them and they lose to the Highlanders in Auckland next week.

The Crusaders were uncharacteristically imprecise, which meant the scoreline paints a false picture of the closeness of the contest. They had two tries disallowed, the first for a forward pass and the second denied for what was deemed deliberate obstruction. Add to that Andy Ellis butchering a try in the second half by dropping a pass with the tryline at his mercy, and Dan Carter having an ordinary night with the boot, and you get a clearer idea of their vast superiority.

However, the Blues were never able to capitalise on their generosity, the worst instance of their wastefulness coming in the 60th minute when Luke McAlister, who had already missed two kicks at goal, grassed a pass 2m from the goal line under absolutely no pressure. They also lost concentration at crucial times, the Crusaders’ first two tries both prime examples. They could do nothing about the last one, Dan Carter showing his class in setting up Zac Guilford with the most sublime chip. The big players stand up at big moments, and Carter is a giant in this regard.

For all their shortcomings, it to would be remiss not to credit the manner in which the Blues fronted on defence. Their line speed, physicality at the collisions and rabid breakdown contest combined to stifle the Crusaders’ attacking flow. When they fell short in these areas their scramble defence was seldom found wanting.

But they struggled on attack, with their ineptitude at the breakdowns undermining their cause to make telling inroads into a well organised defence. Apart from a sensational five pointer early in the first half, and fleeting moments of synergy, especially when their rolling maul found momentum, they looked impotent. They were kept in the match right into its closing stages thanks in most part to the Crusaders’ moments of incompetence.

They started well though, shooting to an 8-0 lead, Rene Ranger’s try adding to an earlier McAlister penalty. The mercurial winger rounded off a move that featured a deft offload by Jared Payne before he added some flash en route to scoring, with a grubber and collect at full pace.

Ranger limped off shortly thereafter. Sonny Bill Williams had done so three minutes previously, and the game certainly missed their unique skill sets.

Carter kicked a penalty in response to Ranger’s score, and was soon lining up a conversion of Matt Todd’s try. Ellis harassed Blues No 8 Peter Saili into an error at the back of a scrum, and then toed the ball forward. The Crusaders’ chasing line imposed immense pressure on the receiver, forced the turnover and Todd emerged from a mountain of bodies.

Carter and McAlister exchanged penalties, with the Crusaders leading 13-11 going down the tunnel. The Blues’ coaching staff would have encouraged their players to stay focussed and not to allow the Crusaders soft points. Their words weren’t cold before the ball spat out of a ruck set up from the restart, allowing Kieran Reid to poach it and send Guilford away for the score.

The Blues responded well, scoring through the impressive Charlie Faumuina. McAlister failed to add the extras and his woe was compounded with the aforementioned knock-on soon thereafter. That try would have given the Blues the momentum, but instead the Crusaders finished stronger, with Carter’s show-stopper helping to seal an important victory.

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