The Crusaders jumped from 12th to seventh on the Vodacom Super Rugby log with a comprehensive 52-31 win over the Toyota Cheetahs in Bloemfontein on Saturday afternoon, but it was not a victory achieved completely without a nervous flutter for the visitors.
The Cheetahs were well out of it shortly after halftime when they trailed 26-10 following an excellent try to massive left wing Nemani Nadolo almost from the restart, but three stunning tries, two of them of an individual nature and one of them that looked the product of some astute work from the video analyst, propelled the Cheetahs into an unexpected lead.
No-one would have foreseen them leading 31-26 with more than 20 minutes to go after they trailed 19-10 at halftime, but that was the problem – they had 20 minutes to go. And in those last 20 minutes, as New Zealand teams tend to be against South African sides towards the end of games these days, it was Crusaders who were the dominant side.
Whereas the Cheetahs scored 21 unanswered points in little more than 10 minutes of high intensity rugby where the hosts definitely appeared to up the pace, the Crusaders crossed for four tries, and a tally of 26 points, in the last quarter of the game to ensure they bank a full house and return home from South Africa having completed an unbeaten tour.
Nadolo was the try-scoring hero for the Crusaders, crossing for a hat-trick, but it was lock Sam Whitelock and the fit again Kieran Read who were the busy players who set up the Crusaders win in general play.
Apart from some excellent lineout work and equally accurate play at the kick-offs, All Black lock Whitelock was all over the field in general play and was the deserved recipient of the official man of the match award.
Nadolo though is a massive digit, weighing in at more than 120 kilograms, and Willie le Roux might well consider himself fortunate to have tripped up when coming across for what would surely have been a futile attempt at a cover tackle when the wing had momentum and was steaming in for his first try early in the second half.
That should really have been the try that broke the back of the Cheetahs as it put the Crusaders 16 points clear, but the Cheetahs deserve credit for the way they fought back to turn the game on its head – albeit only momentarily before the Crusaders scored again and reclaimed the lead.
They crossed for one try in the first half through Cornal Hendriks, but the Crusaders were always the more clinical and efficient and dominated the half as they punished Cheetah attempts to play from their own territory.
That translated into four pinpoint penalty kicks from flyhalf Colin Slade. The Cheetahs did lead 7-6 at one stage, but All Black fullback Israel Dagg was up to dot down a kick ahead to put his team ahead and then Slade added another six points to cancel out a penalty from Cheetahs stand-in flyhalf Elgar Watts.
Watts was on the field as a replacement for Johan Goosen, who was injured in the eighth minute of the game and had to receive attention.
He appeared to survive the concussion test, but was then replaced shortly afterwards. Although he missed a crucial kick that would have reclaimed the lead for the Cheetahs, Watts generally performed well and was an adequate replacement for his more famous teammate.
Sarel Pretorius was the first to score for the Cheetahs as the Cheetahs attacked from deep, and then came the try of the match as Cheetahs replacement back Oupa Mohoje blitzed through from long range, and will surely remember for a long time the way he outpaced Dagg in the final part of his run to score the try that brought the Cheetahs back into it at 26-24.
Johan Sadie was outstanding and featured prominently in all the second-half tries for the Cheetahs, and it was his brilliant offload that put Willie le Roux in a few minutes after that as the Cheetahs cleverly played the Crusaders’ tendency to bunch up in defence and crossed for a try that looked like it had been scripted beforehand.
That though was the final scoring act in the game for the Cheetahs, with Tom Taylor crossing after that to reclaim the lead for the Crusaders through Slade’s conversion. Then followed a sharp Slade break that created space for Nadoro to cross for his second try out on the left.
It was still close until there were three minutes to go, and although the Crusaders enjoyed territorial dominance and were in charge of the possession battle, there was still a chance for the Cheetahs as they trailed by seven points.
That changed though when Slade broke free down the left touchline, with the Cheetahs looking out on their feet after desperately trying to curb a long Crusaders build-up that went through phase after phase before the ball was turned over and then the Cheetahs made another error that gave the ball back to the Kiwis.
That was game set and match so the final Nadoro try was for just one final twist of the knife as the Crusaders avenged two recent defeats in Bloemfontein with a victory that was perhaps flattering in terms of the final winning margin but nonetheless well merited.
The Cheetahs effectively only really put it together in the third quarter, and were well behind the pace for most of the rest of the game.
After shipping yet another big score, they clearly have work to do on their defence before they play the Sharks in Durban next Saturday.
Toyota Cheetahs - Tries: Cornal Hendricks, Sarel Pretorius, Oupa Mohoje, Willie le Roux. Conversions: Elgar Watts (4). Penalties: Watts.
Crusaders - Tries: Israel Dagg, Nemani Nadolo (3), Tom Taylor, Colin Slade. Conversions: Slade (5). Penalties: Slade (4).