Seldom have the Crusaders wobbled as much as they did in the 20-minute period either side of halftime that effectively put the Blues on the road to an emphatic 35-24 Vodacom Super Rugby win over their fierce rivals at Eden Park in Auckland on Friday.
The Blues scored 26 unanswered points in a period of about a quarter-of-an-hour to snuff out Crusaders hopes, which would have been riding high for most of the early parts of the game. Indeed, when the Blues’ purple patch started, they were trailing 17-3 and looked out of it, so you could say that this was one of the more startling comebacks that Super Rugby has seen, if you consider how comfortable they were in the end.
Not that it is ever completely unexpected from the Blues, who are almost impossible to stop once they get into the mood and pick up momentum, which they did in this game. Several of the youngsters making their way in Super Rugby for the first time, such as wing Tevita Li and flyhalf Simon Hickey, led the charge.
The Crusaders, with their lineout dominant against a Blues unit that seemed incapable of doing anything right in that phase, looked to have the game well in hand as they headed into the 10-minute period before halftime. They scored the first try courtesy of some good interplay down the left flank that featured skipper Kieran Read and George Whitelock and eventually resulted in hooker Corey Flynn going over in the left corner just beyond the quarter-hour mark.
The Crusaders had to resist some early pressure, but the Blues were unable to sustain the intensity chiefly because of their inability to be consistent in the lineouts. The hosts did get their first opportunity to put points on the board when Hickey, a graduate of the New Zealand age-group teams who has a big reputation, lined up an easy attempt for his first three pointer at Super Rugby level.
However, the Crusaders were impressing with some strong hand offs to sweeps up-field, and the pressure on the Blues was translated into penalties conceded. Tom Taylor kicked one of them to make it 10-3 but he missed one a few minutes later. He was also short with a kick early in the game so, while not as bad as the previous week, the Crusaders were still well short of perfect in the place-kicking department.
Some might have thought the Crusaders had wrapped the game up when, from a five-metre scrum in front of the posts, the visitors sowed just enough confusion in the Blues’ defence to send fullback Colin Slade in untouched for the try. There was some debate about the try. The Blues appealed, and not completely without justification, to the referee that one of their centres had been taken out without the ball to create the gap through which Slade made his way for the score.
At 17-3 it looked as though the Crusaders had justified their pre-match status as favourites. With 10 minutes to go to the break, it looked like they would be able to enjoy half time with a comfortable lead. Perhaps that was what they were thinking too, for they fell asleep in that period, and a two-try burst from the wings changed the whole complexion of the match.
The first Blues try was the result of a good steal at a recycle from veteran lock Tom Donnelly, with right wing Frank Halai being presented with just enough space to build up momentum down the right flank. Halai stepped inside a despairing Richie McCaw to cross over for the try. Then, at the restart, the Crusaders ran the wrong line and Li was presented the ball from an off-load.
The left wing was challenged several times as he made his way up the touchline and, like Halai’s try just two minutes earlier, McCaw was the last would-be tackler that was made to look as if he wasn’t even there. The All Black skipper was a doubtful starter before the game and unsurprisingly he did not appear after halftime, with Matt Todd taking his place.
You could argue that the Crusaders team as a whole, who led 17-15 at the halfway point as Hickey missed the conversion of Li’s try, also never appeared after halftime. Almost from the restart Taylor dropped a ball, the Blues were in the Crusaders’ half, and then another mistake from the Crusaders, this time allowing the ball to bounce when there were two defenders who should have been able to deal with it, resulted in the Crusaders’ third try.
George Moala was on hand to pick up and score a try that suggested the two try burst from the wings before halftime had stunned the Crusaders. If it was a two-try wing burst before halftime that set the Blues on the comeback road, it was effectively a two-try burst from the centres that saw them build a handy lead.
It was Moala’s midfield partner, Jackson Willison, who followed up a clever little chip behind the Crusaders’ advancing defenders from Piri Weepu, near their tryline, and dotted down for the bonus point score and a 29-17 lead. At that stage there had been 26 unanswered points from the Blues, and it became 29 when Hickey later kicked a penalty to make it 32-24.
The Crusaders spent much of the last quarter on the attack but were unable to make anything of their territorial advantage other than a Ryan Crotty try off an excellent Taylor surge and pass that cut the deficit to eight points. That was with seven minutes to go, but any hopes the Crusaders had of at least grabbing a bonus point were ended by a last minute Hickey penalty.
Given how well Hickey played it was a fitting way to finish and place the seal on a win that ends a seven-match Blues losing sequence. The Crusaders, with not even a bonus point to show from their opening two games, will consider next week’s clash with the DHL Stormers in Christchurch a must win.
Blues – Tries: Frank Halai, Tevita Li, George Moala, Jackson Willison . Conversions: Simon Hickey (3). Penalties: Simon Hickey (3).
Crusaders – Tries: Corey Flynn, Colin Slade, Ryan Crotty. Conversions: Tom Taylor (3). Penalty: Taylor.