The Crusaders’ revenge for the embarrassment of losing to a 14 man Cell C Sharks team a few months ago could not have been sweeter as they handed out a rugby lesson to the Durbanites en route to a one-sided 38-6 Vodacom Super Rugby semifinal in Christchurch on Saturday.
Few gave the Sharks much hope of winning on the other side of the ocean, but skipper Bismarck du Plessis and coach Jake White were buoyant in the build-up and told the New Zealand commentators that they were ready to follow up their historic win at the same venue in May. That though couldn’t have been further from the truth, with the Sharks simply failing to pitch against a Crusaders team that just blew them away.
There have been question marks over the Sharks’ game-plan all season, but the defenders of their conservative strategy always said that what would decide whether it was the correct way to play or not was how the season turned out. In the end the Sharks did win the South African conference, but there was also no denying that the inaccuracy of their kicking game was one of the aspects that let them down when it really mattered.
The Crusaders effectively set the tone for the game in the opening 20 minutes, when they punished the inaccuracy of the Sharks field kicking, and here Pat Lambie, Frans Steyn, SP Marais and Cobus Reinach were all equally to blame, and comprehensively won the territory game. The pressure they were able to exert on the Sharks in their half netted the penalties that enabled them to draw ahead.
The first of those came in just the third minute as the Crusaders went on the attack from the kick-off. There were a couple of steady early scrums from the Sharks, but little else, with the Crusaders winning two lineouts against the throw before the break and also bossing the Sharks at the breakdowns. Bismarck du Plessis and the irrepressible Marcell Coetzee did have their moments in winning mini-battles at the breakdowns, but they were outdone in the overall war by the twin threat of Matt Todd and Richie McCaw.
Kieran Read was one of the players missing from the Crusaders team when they lost to the Sharks last time, but in this game, before being replaced in the 64th minute, when the contest was well won, he showed how much he was missed. He was a monstrous presence in all aspects of No8 play, with his offloading again being to the fore when the Crusaders opted to move the ball across the Sharks defence.
It was Read who confirmed that this would be a night where the Sharks would have to play catch-up when after yet another poor kick from the Sharks, the Crusaders swung the ball to the left and it was the skipper who surged through the gap to go over and score untouched. The Carter conversion made it 10-0 after 16 minutes and already it was looking pretty certain that there would be no Sharks fairytale this time.
The Sharks did draw three points back to make it 10-3 after 21 minutes, but that was the last time that the Sharks were within a converted try of the eventual winners. Not that they ever looked like scoring a try. The Sharks, forced for once to play in their own half of the field, just made too many mistakes, and the Crusaders punished them, with Carter kicking two more penalties to make it 16-3.
The Sharks’ best period of the game was the 10 minutes before half-time, with a succession of penalties on defence helping them find some stabilitiy. Lambie kicked one penalty to make it 16-6 but the miss on the stroke of half-time was a bad one. Had the Sharks gone to the break seven behind after having had so little of the game, they would have been psychologically boosted.
It didn’t happen, and already 10 points looked a lot to make up in 40 minutes against a good defensive team by a side that has been so limited on attack and has tried so little during the course of the season. Put purely and simply, Jake White rugby has never been ideal catch-up rugby, and the Sharks’ fate was pretty much confirmed when, just short of the 50 minute mark, Crusaders scrumhalf Andy Ellis caught the Sharks out by making them think the Crusaders would take the penalty advantage being signaled by referee Glen Jackson.
Instead of settling for the kick though, Ellis swiveled through and transferred the play to Dan Carter, who took the gap and there was some beautiful handling from Colin Slade as the ball went to Nemani Nadolo and the big wing thundered over the line. It was a 15 point game with half an hour to go, and the Sharks might have well conceded the match there and then.
Carter had an off-night with his place-kicking boot, which was fortunate for the Sharks as the Crusaders might have pressed towards the 50 mark had that not been the case. Lambie, perhaps surprisingly used as the first choice place-kicker when Frans Steyn has been so good at that aspect of his game all year, missed some too, but three pointers were never going to make up the deficit.
And that deficit became wider when in the 65th minute the Crusaders put pressure on at a Sharks put-in at a defensive scrum near their line, the ball rolled out the side, and replacement scrumhalf Willi Heinz went over without a hand being put on him. Another replacement, Johnny McNicholl, scored the next try as the Crusaders profited from yet more Sharks inaccuracy, starting with a poor kick and then leading to defensive errors, and the hosts went over in the corner.
Then just to rub it in, with hardly any time left on the clock, came a driving maul from an attacking lineout that Todd dotted down to complete the humiliation for a Sharks team that on the night was just abjectly poor.
The Crusaders did play well, and have their A-game back, of that there is no doubt, but the Sharks also conspired against themselves with their poorly executed kicking game. While the Sharks kicks either sailed directly into touch or into the waiting hands of Crusaders players in deep positions, the Crusaders kicks were almost all contestable, and the Crusaders invariably won those contests.
The Sharks do have too much class and ability on their team list for there to be any excuse for the sort of humiliation suffered in this semifinal and some serious questions will have to be asked about the way forward when they get home.
For a start, they may reflect that they wouldn’t have had to travel to Christchurch for the semifinal had they a complete enough game to pick up the bonus points they needed to finish in the top two. In that sense, for the lesson that was drummed out, and if it inspires a rethink, the margin of defeat may turn out to be a good thing for the Sharks.
Crusaders – Tries: Kieran Read, Nemani Nodolo, Willi Heinz, Johnny McNicholl, Matt Todd. Conversions: Dan Carter (2). Penalties: Dan Carter (3).
Cell C Sharks –Penalties: Patrick Lambie (2)