Someone obviously forgot to tell the Crusaders that Christmas was more than two months ago for the try that allowed the Hurricanes to score an unlikely 29-28 Vodacom Super Rugby win in Wellington can only be described as a gift.
The Hurricanes' victory was unlikely because the Crusaders, after a difficult first half, looked to be taking control and had scored four tries in going out to a 28-19 lead with 20 minutes of the match to go. In previous weeks it was the Hurricanes who somehow conspired against themselves, particularly last week in Brisbane, but this time it was the Crusaders.
The Hurricanes started their fightback with a Beauden Barrett penalty, but it was a long speculative pass inside their own half soon after Barrett had raised the flags that led to the score that enabled Barrett to win the game with the easy conversion. If the pass had found its way to Israel Dagg, the intended target, it might well have been a try down the other end, but Hurricanes right wing Alapati Leiua eagerly grabbed the intercept to go over untouched with seven minutes to go.
That set the Crusaders the task of fighting back, which they did well by dominating territory in the final minutes and building up impressively with the passing movements down the flanks that had been such a headache for the Hurricanes defence in the middle stages of the match. And they could well have clinched it had a drop-goal attempt from Dan Carter, who otherwise had an excellent allround game, not sliced off his boot from almost in front of the posts.
The Crusaders were building up well and the Hurricanes’ defence looked stretched so Carter’s decision to drop might have been the wrong one. He never got another opportunity because after another hand to hand build-up the ball was spilled forward at a loose-scrum and after that the Hurricanes, although forced to play inside their own half, held onto possession from then on.
One note though – the match did show up the Sanzar decision not to follow the global norm by allowing 23 man squads, which would have meant that the Hurricanes would have had to set a scrum and risk a penalty in front of their posts with just under two minutes to go. Instead an injury forced a situation where, with no front-row replacements left on the bench, the scrum had to be uncontested.
That the Crusaders were left to lament that as a missed opportunity was something they have to blame themselves for, as they had their chances to put the game out of reach of the Hurricanes. Indeed, they even did go over for a try in the left corner to Matt Todd, only for the TMO to adjudge that Kieran Read had knocked the ball on slightly in bringing the ball back from a loose-scrum.
It was a mistake that appeared irrelevant at the time as the Crusaders were nine points ahead and already had their four-try bonus point, but it came back to bite them in the end.
This was always going to be a close game, and it was for most of the way. The Crusaders didn’t get much ball in the first half, and were under the kosh for much of it. Whereas the previous week the Hurricanes were staring at the sky in wonderment at some of the refereeing decisions that went against them, in the first half of this match it was the Crusaders who took their turn to be befuddled.
They conceded eight penalties against just two before halftime, which accounts for why they scored the only try of the half and yet were trailing 12-7 at halftime. Barrett had his kicking boots on after landing his first attempt in the seventh minute, but the Crusaders profited from a bit of individual brilliance from Ryan Crotty, who burst through several ineffective tackling attempts to score the converted try that put the Crusaders 7-3 ahead after 26 minutes.
That try, which was against the run of play, briefly inspired panic among the Hurricanes, who went through a patch where they missed several tackles. However they quickly regrouped with the help of penalties they were awarded, and in the last 10 minutes of the half the Crusaders couldn’t do anything right as the Hurricanes kicked three penalties without reply.
The Crusaders were excellent at regaining the kick-offs and they steadily improved their quest for possession through the game, and once they sorted out their disciplinary problems in the second half, they started to look like the Crusaders of old.
A sustained build-up saw hooker Corey Flynn over for a converted try that regained Crusaders the lead, and then in the 52nd minute a ball was dribbled through and Israel Dagg showed great ball control to gather on the bounce on the line and put the visitors nine points ahead.
That was the cue though for Hurricanes winger Julian Savea to provide the moment of the match. Savea was on the end of a line movement that looked like it was going nowhere in particular until he beat one tackler and then in spectacular fashion dropped his shoulder on Dagg and contemptuously brushed the All Black aside to score a great try.
With 24 minutes to go it was anyone’s game again as the Crusaders led 21-19, but the Crusaders re-established their nine-point buffer four minutes later when the Crusaders built up down the left through a vulnerable looking Hurricanes defence before Carter, who featured a few times in the movement which started from a turn-over, kicked a misdirected pass ahead to score.
At that stage it looked as if the Crusaders were going to end the night with five log points and be well back in the Super Rugby race, but it wasn’t to be. By scoring four tries and losing by less than seen they did end with two crucial log points though and showed that provided they are less charitable next time, they still have plenty going for them.
Hurricanes – Tries: Julian Savea, Alapati Leiua. Conversions: Beauden Barrett (2). Penalties: Barrett (5).
Crusaders – Tries: Ryan Crotty, Corey Flynn, Israel Dagg, Dan Carter. Conversions: Carter (4).