The Crusaders continued to give the impression that they are hitting form at exactly the right time as they outplayed the Blues 23-3 in a New Zealand Super Rugby derby in Christchurch that was both a good advert for the competition and the talent available in that country.
As the scoreline would suggest, the Blues were outplayed – and yet they played their part in a game that was played at 100-miles-an-hour from the start, and which was clearly approached by both teams with massive intensity as they sought to make a statement in a tightly contested Kiwi conference.
The Blues had enough possession, and they had their opportunities, but came up short because firstly the Crusaders were more clinical and secondly because they were just allowed no space to breathe or move by an opposing team that brought massive physical intensity to their defensive game. And then there was also the performance of the Crusaders scrum, which is starting to run into ominous form as the play-off phase of the competition nears.
The Blues may have felt a bit unluckly to fall behind 10-0 in the 25th minute of the game. Up to then they had enjoyed 87% territory as the two sides threw everything at each other in an attempt to get the first score, which came just beyond the 20 minute mark. The Blues conceded a silly penalty when the Crusaders were on what at that stage was a rare incursion into the opposition half.
Tom Taylor kicked it to make it 3-0 and then the Blues were condemned to playing catch-up four minutes later when the Crusaders centre Ryan Crotty charged down an attempted Chris Noakes clearance and went over to score the first of two Crusaders tries.
Noakes drew his team back through a penalty after half an hour, but the Blues conceded a crucial three-pointer on the stroke of halftime as the Crusaders built up for one final attack and Blues lock Culum Retallick was yellow carded after being adjudged to have deliberately knocked down an attempted pass to Sam Whitelock.
The replay was asked for by referee Glenn Jackson to check if there might have been a try on, but there was a Blues player coming across on cover defence so, unlike in Melbourne in the game featuring the Stormers the day before, sanity prevailed and his call was that it would only be a penalty. Taylor kicked it from the angle and it was a crucial score as the Crusaders went to the sheds 13-3 up.
The Crusaders had reversed the territorial spread in the game in the second part of the first half, but their best passage of the game from an attacking viewpoint was the third quarter, which was when they effectively took control of the match.
Of course they started the half with a one-man advantage as Retallick was in the bin for 10 minutes, and they made it count as they stole two lineouts against the throw and the momentum switched inexorably towards the Crusaders. This would have infuriated Blues captain Ali Williams, who clearly didn’t agree with the penalty and binning of Retallick, as referee Jackson was heard to say to him at the time of that incident that he wouldn’t talk to him in the mood he was in.
And he wouldn’t have been happy with what happened next, as the Crusaders, mindful that a key man was missing from the Blues line-out formation, launched two successive penalties into the corner before taking advantage of the second by mauling over the line for Owen Franks to claim the dot down. At 20-3 it was a long way back for the Blues against a team as tight and as aggressive defensively as the Crusaders were, and the road to parity became an even longer one when Taylor added another penalty to stretch the deficit to 20.
That Taylor kick came just before the beginning of a last quarter in which the Blues enjoyed plenty of good field position but couldn’t overcome the composure of the Crusaders under pressure. There was a scoring opportunity for them when right wing Frank Halai appeared to go over on his back, with the subsequent angles being offered to the TMO by the onfield cameras showing only a mass of bodies and no conclusive evidence that the try had been scored.
Had it been awarded, the final quarter of an hour might have been interesting, but it wasn’t so there was always going to be only one winner. The Blues weren’t helped by the fact the Crusaders scrum was stronger than theirs, which meant they had few real opportunities to launch when they were in the strike-zone.
Kieran Read is back to his best form at No 8 and as captain for the Crusaders after his lay-off, and while Dan Carter did not do the goalkicking in this game, he was worth his weight in gold with his tactical play and also his defence. Andy Ellis celebrated his 100th appearance with a solid performance behind a pack dominated by All Blacks who are running into form at just the right time.
The Crusaders win sets up a massive top-of-the-conference showdown with the Chiefs in Hamilton next Friday, and on current form the Crusaders may even be travelling to the north island as favourites. They won’t have been helped though by the late match injury to Adam Whitelock, with the replacement back being helped from the field with what looked like a serious leg injury.
Crusaders - Tries: Ryan Crotty, Owen Franks. Conversions: Tom Taylor (2). Penalties: Taylor (3).
Blues - Penalty: Chris Noakes.