Crusaders edge Christchurch epic

JON CARDINELLI watched the Crusaders outlast a gritty Stormers side in a thrilling 31-24 win on Saturday.

Rarely do such hyped contests deliver such drama. The Crusaders had made a statement in last week’s game against the Bulls, while the Stormers had come to Christchurch determined to record their first win against the Cantabrians on New Zealand soil.

There were errors in this match that will be rightly criticised, but there were also superlative exhibitions of skill, unrelenting showings of power and no small measure of guts.

One team walked away with the spoils, and deservedly so, but the losing side overcame some injuries to key players early on. It was fitting that the Stormers ended the game with a bonus point, they earned it for never giving up.

Todd Blackadder’s decision to pick Tom Taylor as his starting flyhalf and first-choice goalkicker certainly paid off. The youngster turned in a flawless goal-kicking display, and ended up scoring all 31 of the Crusaders’ points.

The ploy to play All Blacks No 10 Dan Carter at inside centre also worked to an extent. Taylor, Carter, and other tactical kickers like Israel Dagg and Andy Ellis, bombarded the Stormers with high kicks and deep probes early in the contest. Some of these kicks were not accurate, but the Crusaders did enough to win the territorial battle.

Credit should go to the home side for a titanic forward showing and great tactical display, but the Stormers’ loss of Andries Bekker and Eben Etzebeth in the first half must be taken into account.

Bekker cried off with a lower back complaint while Etzebeth’s injury necessitated a forward reshuffle. Reserve hooker Deon Fourie came on as an openside flank while De Kock Steenkamp was asked to play a Bekker-type role at the lineout.

Somehow the Stormers managed to survive a shaky set-piece performance and go to the break only 19-13 down. The Crusaders were clinical early on, with Taylor finishing a trademark Crusaders counter-attack and converting every kickable opportunity. A mistake by Carter, however was pounced on by Juan de Jongh, while the Stormers’ goal-kickers also showed the necessary temperament in front of goal.

The Stormers’ depth was tested when both locks left the field and other players were forced to play out of position. The pack stood up to the test, but what the team will regret is the inability to punish the Crusaders in the first half.

Wyatt Crockett was yellow-carded, and dubiously at that, for a high hit, but the Stormers failed to take advantage as a penalty goal by Joe Pietersen was quickly cancelled out by Taylor’s three-pointer at the other end.

There were times when it seemed the forced forward reshuffle worked in the visitors’ favour. The Stormers don’t play with a specialist fetcher, but the skills and build of Fourie make him the closest thing to an expert forager in that match 22. He certainly made a difference in slowing down the Crusaders’ ruck recycle, although he wasn’t always accurate.

In one such instance, Fourie lost his footing when going for a steal at the crucial moment. He conceded a penalty that allowed the Crusaders to take the score to 22-16.

But it was here that the Stormers showed their mettle. Wave after wave of attack crashed into an equally determined Crusaders defence. The hosts effected one turnover and attempted to clear, but the Stormers hit right back, hammering into the Crusaders’ wall until Dewaldt Duvenage spotted some space. The Stormers scrumhalf chipped across field to an unmarked Bryan Habana, who obliged with the touchdown. Pietersen couldn’t convert, and so the Stormers still trailed 22-21.

Referee Chris Pollock was consistent in that he got a lot wrong on both sides. The first-half call to sin-bin Crockett, which was admittedly made with the assistant referee’s advice in mind, was a shocker.

The Stormers also benefited when Pollock missed a knock-up in the build-up to the Habana try. There would have been a public outcry had the Crusaders not managed to pull through.

Late in the piece Pollock decided that he needed to be fair to both teams, and sent Rynardt Elstadt to the bin for a similar offence to that of Crockett. It was another terrible call, and the Stormers, who had fought heroically to stay in the contest, spent a crucial period of the game with only seven forwards on the park.

This is where the difference between the two sides was clear, as the Crusaders made the advantage count. Through Taylor’s unerring boot, they scored nine points while Elstadt was on the sideline. At 31-21 the game was over.

Although they were beaten, the Stormers showed incredible resolve to fight back for a losing bonus point. They took the ball through numerous phases, showing great control and determination against a Crusaders side who looked just as keen to win the ball and end the game.

The Stormers eventually won a penalty inside the hosts’ half, and Grant, who has shown himself to be a great finisher at the death in 2012, kicked the goal that ensured the visitors collected a valuable log point from this massive contest.