The Crusaders sounded their intention to clinch an eighth Vodacom Super Rugby title when they turned in an awesome display of total rugby to smash the Reds 38-9 in the first Finals Series match in Christchurch on Saturday.
Down the years the Crusaders have developed a penchant for peaking at the right time, and it looks as though they are doing it again.
Kieran Read, their captain, was right to adopt a cautionary tone afterwards when he pointed out that his men have tended to mix good weeks with less impressive weeks recently, and whether they play the Chiefs in Hamilton or the Bulls in Pretoria, the semifinal next week will be a tough obstacle for them to overcome.
But on this form they are going to be hard to stop wherever they play, and the 2011 champions from Brisbane appeared to reap the whirlwind in a match which also celebrated the return to the playing field of All Black captain Richie McCaw.
The flanker came onto the field in the 66th minute, but by then the Crusaders were already 28-9 ahead and marching to either Pretoria or Hamilton (depending on who wins Sunday’s match between the Brumbies and Toyota Cheetahs).
He had an immediate influence though, as his first carry took him across the gainline, and off the resultant play Dan Carter, who was again in brilliant form and contributed 20 points to his team’s tally, put Ryan Crotty in for his second try.
Then came a long-range penalty from Tom Taylor after Carter was replaced to place the seal on an outstanding win.
It’s hard to pinpoint a specific area where the Crusaders were better than the Reds, for they were better across the board.
The platform was laid though by the tight five, and the pressure they were put under at first phase meant that their star scrumhalf and playmaker Will Genia never had room to have any kind of influence.
Because of that flyhalf Quade Cooper, again booed by a Kiwi crowd every time he touched the ball, also had no influence other than in getting back to cover when the Crusaders put kicks through.
The Crusaders' intensity in the tackle was also significantly higher than the Reds, and the game was probably decided in the first quarter, when the Reds struggled to hold onto possession in the face of the ferocity of the home team’s onslaught.
The turn-over stats by the end of the game summed up the Crusaders’ effectiveness in that area, with the Crusaders turning over Reds ball 10 times more than the visitors managed.
Matt Todd, playing his 50th game, was nothing short of sublime, and Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder has some thinking to do as he considers the relative merits of the returning McCaw against his inform openside flank.
The Crusaders enjoyed momentum from the outset, and they started to move the Reds around with their passing game from the kick-off, the early pressure netting a penalty that enabled Carter to slot a three pointer that put his team into a lead they never looked like relinquishing.
After 10 minutes Luke Romano burrowed towards the line after impressive wing Tom Marshall had been held up just short and play had been transferred to the right.
Referee Jaco Peyper had to consult the TMO, who could not find evidence that a try had been scored. However, the Kiwi commentators felt he got his recommendation to Peyper wrong, as it did look as if the ball had been lost forward.
So the Reds were perhaps unlucky that the Crusaders had the benefit of the put-in at a five metre scrum, from which Ryan Scotty scored near the posts after straightening the line after Carter had angled across the face of the tryline.
The Reds’ defence in the midfield looked disorganised, and it remained that way for most of the match. Carter’s conversion made it 10-0 after just 11 minutes, and although Cooper did bring three points back after 13 minutes with a penalty that notched him his landmark 600th point in the competition, Carter restored the 10 point buffer with a kick of his own 10 minutes later.
A good strike from Cooper from a fairly long range attempt cut the deficit back to seven points once more, but then came a brilliant Sam Whitelock surge through an ineffectual Reds defence that set up the Crusaders’ second try.
The All Black lock was checked by the last defender, but the ball was moved with alacrity to the left and Carter, running at pace, received it in a wide channel and accelerate over in the corner.
Although the flyhalf was unable to convert his own try he was on target with another penalty to make it 21-6 at halftime, although it could easily have been more one-sided than that as George Whitelock powered over the line off the last move of the break but again the TMO was unable to find the evidence that a try had been scored.
The Reds looked like they were intent on playing the ball away from the Crusaders’ strengths nearer the forwards at the start of the second half, Cooper slotting a penalty from in front of the posts in the 45th minute after missing one from longer range shortly before that.
That though was the last time the Reds bothered the scorers, although it did look like they were denied a good try later in the game, with Liam Gill appearing on the television evidence to have gone over the line but the TMO ruling against him.
But by then the Crusaders had scored another sensational try to effectively make the game safe at 28-9. This one, the third scored by the Crusaders, was created by fullback Israel Dagg drawing the defenders to him after receiving the ball from a lineout, Wyatt Crockett scything through from the fullback’s pass, Todd carrying it on before the ball went left for Marshall to cap a fine game with a try.
Crusaders – Tries: Ryan Crotty (2), Dan Carter, Tom Marshall. Conversion: Dan Carter (3). Penalties: Carter (3).
Queensland Reds – Penalties: Quade Cooper (3)