Marc Hinton, rugbyheaven.co.nz
May 17, 2008 - 7:50PM
It's official. The Crusaders have some major problems ahead of the Super 14 finals, the runaway competition leaders stunned by the Highlanders 26-14 in their final round-robin hitout at AMI Stadium.All week the Robbie Deans farewell tour had been in full flow around Christchurch, the master coach waved goodbye officially as his city gathered to pay tribute to him ahead of his departure to take the reins of the Wallabies.
So whether the normally cast-iron Crusaders were distracted, or just plain bored by a match that had nothing riding on it (they had well and truly secured home advantage for the finals, regardless of what happened here), the upshot was that they were not ready for this match – and paid the price.
The Highlanders brought all the urgency and commitment, not to mention accuracy, to the occasion and as a result they secured the victory that – to be fair – had been brewing for a month now as these Crusaders have gone well and truly off the boil.
It was a fabulous win for the Highlanders, too, three tries to one as the southern men farewelled one of their own loyal servants in spectacular fashion. Given that it was just their third victory of the season, and the first over the Crusaders since 2001, it was just the sendoff that skipper Craig Newby deserved.
But rather than what it would have done for the Highlanders, who are always rapt to secure a victory over their highly-rated neighbours, the stunning upset of the season will have sent shockwaves through the Crusaders camp ahead of next weekend's semifinal assignment on the same ground.
Ever since they were knocked over by the Chiefs in Hamilton – their only other defeat of the season – the red and blacks have been treading water, at best. They were lucky to beat the Blues at home, struggled in the wet to knock over the Sharks and then got out of jail last weekend in Brisbane when they had to overcome a 13-point second-half deficit to narrowly defeat the Reds.
But the Highlanders had been paying attention, and noticed what the Reds did to unsettle the six-time champions.
"We watched the Reds game last week and thought what they did was pressure their tight five, their loosies got put under pressure and they couldn't get the front-foot ball," said a rapt Newby."That's what we tried to do, and I guess it paid off."
That it did, and the Highlanders wouldn't have cared a jot that the game rather lost its shape in the second half, a lone Mike Delany penalty the only act of scoring in a fairly scrappy second 40.
It didn't matter to the Highlanders who ended a 12-year wait for their second win in Christchurch and capped a frustrating year, in which they'd been competitive throughout but failed to nail the results they possibly deserved, in the sort of style that will have the franchise's critics struggling for a response.
For a side that took a 12-point lead at the top of the table into the final round of the regular season, the Crusaders sure struggled through the opening 40 minutes against a spirited Highlanders outfit. In fact, struggled is probably being generous to the hosts who conceded three tries to one and a 14-23 deficit at the break. Considering this was No 1 playing 12 on their home track that was some form turnaround.
But there was no denying the Highlanders, who showed by far the greater urgency, spirit and endeavour, were worthy of their advantage through the first spell. They scored tries to fullback Paul Williams, after just six minutes, halfback Tony Morland, eight minutes from the break, and flanker Adam Thomson, four minutes shy of the interval. And, frankly, make the raging competition favourites look like chumps in the process.
Williams' score was a beautiful read of a Dan Carter crosskick which the Highlanders No 15 (and Canterbury draft player) swooped on and showed excellent skill and strength to gather and dash clear. Morland had the creativity of five-eighth Daniel Bowden to thank for his score after the Highlanders No 10 slipped clear of Mose Tuiali'i's loose tackle and found his halfback expertly; while Thomson managed to wriggle over as the Crusaders were punished for loose play in their own 22 as the visiting forwards got the drive going.
The Crusaders had actually opened the scoring in just the fifth minute when hooker Corey Flynn was driven over from a set move off the lineout, but after that three penalties from Carter was all the competition's top team had to show for their efforts. We kept expecting the Crusaders response in the second 40, but it never came. Instead the errors kept flowing as the home side were probably lucky just to concede the lone Delany penalty.
Newby had a mighty match for the Highlanders in his last outing before heading to join Leicester, Thomson confirmed his status as one of the new stars on the New Zealand scene, while lock Hayden Triggs and openside Tim Boys threw themselves into the fray splendidly. Morland did well in a rare start at No 9, wing Paul Williams continued a splendid comeback season while the midfielders ran hard and straight and wing Fetu'u Vainikolo caused plenty of problems for the Crusaders defence.
For the All Black-laden Crusaders this was a match they would probably rather forget, epitomised by the late sinbinning for skipper Richie McCaw who trudged off the field shaking his head in wonderment. It was hard to say if that was more over the decision, or the performance of his team. OUPS!
For the first time in four years the Crusaders failed to pick up a single point at home. It was just the performance that will have the other semifinalists, whoever they may be, smiling to themselves.
OTAGO HIGHLANDERS 26 (Paul Williams, Toby Moreland, Adam Thomson tries; Mike Delany con 3 pens)
CANTERBURY CRUSADERS 14 (Corey Flynn try; Dan Carter 3 pens)
Referee: Keith Brown (NZL)