RYAN VREDE analyses the showdown in Christchurch, and writes the Crusaders will build their victory over the Bulls on the slick execution of a simple game plan and not mind-blowing feats.
The team’s strategies are very similar, but the Crusaders’ superior execution makes them favourites to win. It is an enduring fallacy that the Crusaders are a run-from-anywhere team. Indeed they are among the most pragmatic, particularly in their territory, kicking almost as often as the Bulls do. The Crusaders make a tactical kick from the hand on average every 37 seconds, compared with the Bulls who kick on average every 39 seconds.
However, the accuracy with which the Saders kick amplifies their threat (no team has made fewer kick errors). Notably, they seldom kick the ball into touch (second lowest in the comp). This means they are likely to punt into space and ask the Bulls to either run or kick it back, the former allowing them to pressure them into errors while the latter could present broken field opportunities if the kick is poor. Furthermore, given that the Bulls lead the competition in lineout steals, the Crusaders will be determined to pressure their primary kickers into miscued punts that don’t find touch.
Speaking to keo.co.za on Monday, Bulls coach Frans Ludeke highlighted pressure management and pressure creation as being decisive to the outcome. Territorial dominance is important in this regard. The Bulls have the highest average proportion of territory, with the Crusaders third highest. However, neither are high in the possession stakes, ranked 11 and 12th respectively, indicating that they’re adept at forcing errors through pressure defence in the opposition’s territory.
The thing is, neither make errors that often – the Bulls the second best in this regard while the Crusaders are in fourth – and both among the best at restricting errors in or close to their 22m. In light of this, these teams will have to be proactive in ‘making the play’ instead of waiting to feed off their opponents’ errors, which has been the method for both of them against inferior teams.
Penalties have, however, been a problem for the Bulls and if this trend continues they will seriously undermine their cause. They are fourth highest in the competition for conceding a penalty in possession, and do so most often at scrum time. Ominously they lead for conceding them between halfway and their 22m – kickable positions for Dan Carter. In comparison the Crusaders concede few penalties in this area.
The gainline battle will be hotly contested and will be the most important facet of play. For the Bulls to stifle the Crusaders’ momentum and dilute the potency of their back division they have to front on defence. They’ve struggled against sides with powerful carriers and the Crusaders have some of the best in the game, although they will miss the drive Kieran Read gives them. Missed tackles could be terminal against the seven-time champions. The Bulls miss 1 in 6.4 attempts, but encouragingly very few in their own half.
With ball in hand the Bulls Bulls are breaking 1 in 7.2 tackles attempts, the fourth worst in the competition. Beyond that they have often been bullied at the tackle point against the elite sides, meaning their launch platform was seldom adequate to unhinge defences. The Crusaders will be a stern test of them in this department and their main strike runners simply must rise to the occasion.
Strategy-wise there is little differences between these sides. I’ve written before that the Crusaders rarely do mind-blowing things, but rather are generally unbelievably slick in executing a simple game plan. This was the defining characteristic of the Bulls in their championship winning campaigns. They remain a formidable opponent, but lack that refinement and this will be the difference between winning and losing.