If the Crusaders advance from this point to annex the third Rebel Sport Super 14 title, it may be that the players and management look back on tonight’s courageous 26-22 win at AMI Stadium as the team’s defining moment.
For, in overcoming the adversity and distractions which had plagued their lead-up to all but extinguish the Blues hopes of featuring in the semi-finals, the Crusaders have also made a sizeable deposit in their own bank of self belief.
While there was an element of luck involved for sure, with television replays later casting doubt over the legality of the fourth of the Crusaders’ tries; good teams tend to make their own luck – and the Crusaders were unquestionably good tonight.
“Certainly the level of effort was back where we wanted it to be after last week’s let down,” Crusaders coach Robbie Deans acknowledged, after the four-try-to-three win. “We weren’t able to play our game against the Chiefs, instead being sucked into a one out grind up the middle of the park. Tonight we were able to play using the full width despite being confronted by a committed and determined opposition who were playing for their season. It’s a credit to the confidence of the guys that they didn’t allow last weekend to put them off, and continued to back themselves.”
That the Crusaders did – possibly more so than the Blues – which was no mean feat in itself, given the circumstances.
While tonight’s line-up featured three players – fullback Leon MacDonald, centre Caleb Ralph and prop Greg Somerville – who number in excess of 100 appearances for the franchise; the relative greenness of some of the troops around them, especially in the backline, was inescapable.
Setting the career statistics of MacDonald and Ralph to one side, the rest of the Crusaders backline could cobble together just 71 appearances between them, heading into tonight’s contest.
It was that inexperience, and the anxiety that accompanies it on the big occasions, that the Blues counted on exploiting to keep their season alive.
The Crusaders’ younger brigade stood firm.
Although both sides were guilty of some nervous touches in the opening moments, starting from the kick off when Blues lock and skipper Troy Flavell spilled the ball; the Crusaders were the first to find their poise.
After Blues flanker Daniel Braid had been pinched for repeatedly slowing down Crusaders ruck ball, the home side opted to scrum an attacking free kick, before breaking blind where MacDonald breached the first line of defence.
As the Blues swept across in cover, MacDonald found Richie McCaw on his inside, and the Crusaders skipper broke through the remaining defenders to post the game’s first try.
Stephen Brett’s conversion made it 7-0 after 10 minutes, and the score remained that way until the 25th minute, when the home side went further ahead.
Prior to that point, however, the Crusaders’ thinning resources had been further stretched when a strained hamstring forced No 8 Mose Tuiali’i to retire, leaving his 19-year-old replacement Nasi Manu with 65 minutes to play against a top flight opposing loose trio.
“No way, beforehand, would I have thought that I’d have been ready to play for so long against those guys,” a breathless Manu said just after the final whistle. “The game, it just seemed to go so fast, and they just seemed to keep coming at us. You just had to keep getting up to make tackle after tackle.”
Manu did that, and was among the Crusaders’ special heroes, alongside his fellow national Under-20 representatives Sean Maitland and Kade Poki, who also both came up with significant plays.
Before the youngsters took centre stage, hooker Corey Flynn threatened to steal the show after posting the 11th and 12th tries of his Super rugby career.
The Canterbury Air New Zealand Cup captain’s first try came after 25 minutes when he ran onto a short pop pass from blindside flanker and Crusaders man of the match Kieran Read, and raced 20 metres to score, carrying two desperate Blues defenders across the goal-line with him.
The first Flynn try provoked an immediate response from the Blues, with flanker Jerome Kaino breaking in behind the Crusaders defensive line to set winger Rudi Wulf up for the visitor’s first try.
That try made it 12-7 at halftime, but the Blues struck again immediately after the break, going ahead 14-12 when No 8 Nick Williams rammed his way across to plant the ball on the goal-post pad.
While there appeared to be some doubt as to whether Williams had controlled the ball as he scored, the rub of fortune went the Blues way on that occasion, although it was to even itself out before the end.
If going behind, after having appeared in control, dented the Crusaders’ confidence at all, it definitely didn’t show as they responded with an audacious break out try that spanned 80 metres, and ended with Flynn plonking the ball down near the posts.
The movement was initiated by second-five-eighths Tim Bateman, but featured contributions from Caleb Ralph and Andrew Ellis, before Flynn arrived to provide the final act, which put the Crusaders back in front.
Ahead 19-14, the Crusaders pressed for further points, but were denied when Brett twice missed narrowly with penalty goal attempts.
This failing looked set to be punished when Nick Evans, who’d been named at first-five-eighths but wound up playing at fullback after a late tactical switch with Isa Nacewa, goaled a 62-minute penalty to draw his side back to 17-19.
Flynn was penalised and sent to the sin bin in the preceding action that led to the penalty, but his absence only served to spur the Crusaders towards their fourth, and bonus point sealing, try.
It came after Bateman put in a kick which Maitland retrieved.
While television replays later suggested that the young winger’s foot had grazed the touch line as he fought to keep two defenders at bay while releasing the ball; his enthusiasm was rewarded, as his pass found the ever-present McCaw, who found hooker Ti’i Paulo, who crossed for his third try of the campaign.
The try came with Paulo’s first touch after he had come on while Flynn was banished, and it was pivotal.
With Brett’s conversion, the Crusaders had a nine-point buffer at 26-17; 12 minutes from time, and they needed it.
Playing for their season, the Blues threw everything they had at the home side during the final stanza of the game, repeatedly drawing last ditch heroics out of the Crusaders.
Flavell looked to have scored in the corner, only to have the effort denied due to his body striking the sideline as it collided with a desperate defender.
Centre Anthony Tuitavake then broke through the middle of the Crusaders defence and appeared certain to score, only to be dramatically pulled down from behind and thwarted by a grand smothering tackle from Poki.
“I didn’t know whether I could stop him or not, but I had to have a crack,” Poki said later.“I could feel the momentum taking us both towards our goal-line as we went down but, fortunately, he couldn’t get the ball down.”
Such is the selflessness Deans has demanded from his players and Poki, who has had his share of personal challenges to face in recent times, responded as a Crusader should!
To their credit, the Blues continued to press, and finally cracked the Crusaders again with six minutes remaining when speedy winger David Smith was worked over in the corner.
Smith clipped the corner flag as he scored the try, but that is okay in the brave new world of ELVs, so the try stood, although Evans couldn’t add the difficult conversion from the corner.
Even so, with four points in it, a grand stand finish followed, with the Blues briefly threatening to pull their season back from the dead.
Their last chance came when awarded a penalty in midfield, but Evans went for too much territory in trying to find the sideline, kicking the ball dead in goal, which ended their challenge.
The five points the Crusaders have gathered tonight further stretched their advantage at the top of the Rebel Sport Super 14 standings, with the side now 11 points clear, pending the outcome of the other matches to follow this weekend.
The Sharks, who play the NSW Waratahs in Sydney on Saturday evening, are the next visitors to AMI Stadium on Friday night.
Tuiali’i is in doubt for that match after suffering his hamstring injury tonight, but the Crusaders appear to be otherwise okay in terms of new battle damage.
Centre Casey Laulala could come back into contention for that match, after missing tonight, but Daniel Carter and Reuben Thorne will be out of action for a wee while longer.