Crusaders crack into top gear

JON CARDINELLI writes that the Crusaders were at their brutal and clinical best in the 51-18 hammering of the Highlanders in Christchurch.

The battle at the breakdown was a barney of the fiercest order. Both sets of forwards powered into the tackle point, and referee Steve Walsh was forced to blow his whistle far too many times in the first half.

Initially, it was the Highlanders who dominated the collisions and the Crusaders who resorted to illegal tactics as a means of killing the visitors’ momentum. Walsh eventually lost his patience with the Crusaders in the 16th minute, sending George Whitelock to the sin bin for repeated team infringements.

The shorthanded Crusaders then proceeded to concede 10 points during the period of sanction, allowing the Highlanders to edge 13-10 in front. Centre Tamati Ellison showed impressive power to shrug off one tackle attempt, fend another would-be defender and jet in for what would be a seven-pointer.

But while the Highlanders had done well to cash in, they couldn’t compare to the Crusaders for clinical efficiency. Just as Whitelock returned from the sidelines, Highlanders loose forward James Haskell was yellow-carded for a similar offence. In the ensuing 10 minutes, the Crusaders amassed 19 match-winning points.

Two tries were scored by Zac Guildford in this period, and Dan Carter featured prominently in the creation of both. The Highlanders defence rushed the Crusaders who were pinned back in their own 22, but Carter didn’t panic, weighing in with a short grubber that was smartly collected by reserve hooker Quentin MacDonald, who then transferred the ball to Guildford. The winger still had plenty to do, and showed good awareness and pace to finish.

Guildford’s second strike was down to a fantastic forward platform, although Carter once again produced a magic, defence-breaching touch. A great lineout win was followed by a powerful series of hit-ups and offloads. When the Highlanders’ defenders were caught in the uncertainty of whether to advance or retreat, Carter slipped through another grubber for Guildford to chase.

The Crusaders scored from the subsequent kickoff. A Highlanders defensive error allowed the hosts to obtain the necessary momentum before unleashing their free-running backs. Ryan Crotty rounded off what was the bonus-point try, and at 32-13, the game was over as a contest.

The Highlanders employed a more expansive approach in an attempt to reduce the massive deficit, but this only served to play into the Crusaders’ hands.

The hosts scored after the break through Richie McCaw, the captain finishing another great team surge. There were more opportunities to score in the build up to the 60-minute mark, and after a few misfires, the Crusaders finally grabbed their sixth through prop Wyatt Crockett.

To their credit, they never relented, and a seventh try in the 73rd minute as well as another conversion by Carter brought up the half century.

The performance is an encouraging one for a Crusaders outfit that has blown hot and cold over the past four or five rounds. They will head into the break in a powerful position.

Conversely, this result has seen the Highlanders’ play-off prospects sustaining a decisive knock. They remain outside the top six with two league matches to play, and there has been nothing in their recent showings to suggest they will beat their remaining opponents (the Chiefs and Reds).