Monday, May 18, 2009

Crusaders to face Bulls in semifinals

The Crusaders sense something special is in the air. That was more than obvious after Leon MacDonald turned matchwinner last night with a last-gasp dropped goal against the Blues that will see them face the Bulls in the Super 14 semifinals.

He may be leaving New Zealand rugby and by his own admission be a little past his best, but MacDonald was plenty good enough for the defending champs as he provided the big play at the big moment to keep their playoff hopes alive.

The Crusaders, who were never a shot at the bonus point they needed to seal a semifinal spot, got the help they needed from their mates over in South Africa to make their 11th playoff appearance in the last dozen years.

And who knows? Maybe even an eighth title could yet be in prospect for a franchise that knows the way home from all avenues at playoff time. Certainly that was the message they were giving after their dramatic win, sealed by MacDonald's ice-cool dropped goal four minutes from time.

With the Hurricanes taking care of business in Brisbane, the Crusaders clung to fourth spot with only the Sharks capable of catching them overnight. However, the Durban based side failed to secure the bonus-point win over the Bulls that they needed, so it's off to Pretoria and another Super 14 semifinal for the red and blacks.

"That was a planned move," said Blackadder of the efficient Crusaders drive into dropped-goal territory. "I'm just pleased the decision-making was right at the right time. To come back and keep a clear head and for Leon to step up I thought was outstanding. I thought under real pressure our guys kept their composure at critical times."

"This game has probably been our biggest hurdle," said the Crusaders coach, adding that he'd be "painting himself blue" in reference to backing the Bulls against the Sharks. "It's like a different pressure when you get to semis rugby, but first of all you've got to get there.

"We really thought tonight's game was our biggest hurdle. If we get into semifinals rugby we've got a great chance."

The Crusaders have MacDonald to thank for giving them a shot at an eighth title. He was very much the hero of the night, the classy fullback scoring all of his side's points as they shook off a couple of contentious, and potentially calamitous, TMO decisions that went against them.

As time wound down, with the Crusaders trailing 12-13 after Isaia Toeava's borderline 71st-minute try had been green-lighted, it was MacDonald who dropped coolly back into the pocket as his side worked its way hot on to attack.

There was no panic from the Crusaders, just purpose, as they worked the phases, then cleared the ball perfectly for MacDonald to calmly chip the dropped goal that may well have kept this remarkable season of theirs alive for at least one more week. It was his first ever dropped goal at this level of the game.

"I looked around and saw Steve [Brett} was in a ruck," said the fullback. That meant he then became the No 1 option. "I wouldn't say it was the sweetest kick I've ever taken, but I got it over. We'll take it."

The first half was fairly turgid stuff, two MacDonald penalties to one from Jimmy Gopperth giving the visitors a tenuous 6-3 lead.

In fact it was the Blues who created very much the better opportunities, but too often spilled the key pass once the line had been breached. The Crusaders struggled to mount sustained pressure with ball in hand and too often both sides were guilty of aimlessly kicking away possession.

The three-point lead was doubled just three minutes into the second spell, though it could have been much better for the Red and Blacks as they started with a hiss and a roar.

Thomas Waldrom had steamed through off Ryan Crotty's nice break, but couldn't quite make the line, MacDonald's third penalty making it a 9-3 lead.

Crusaders lock Michael Paterson looked like he'd scored the opening try soon after, but the TMO ruled as "inconclusive" his thrust over the line, when replays appeared to show him forcing the ball, eventually...

The opening had been carved by some nice "football" skills from Stephen Brett, who'd dribbled grounded ball through, before eventually putting Wyatt Crockett on the run close to the line.

Paterson lunged over, Blackadder thought he'd scored it up in the coach's box, but in the end all the Crusaders got was 10 minutes a man up when Tom Chamberlain was binned.

Penalties were then traded, before the Crusaders bombed a royal chance a dozen minutes from time when Brett's pass at MacDonald's ankles let the Blues off the hook.

Then came Toeava's try - contentious in the extreme - after Brett and Jared Payne had miscued under pressure. This time the TMO gave the doubt to the attacker and it was gut-check time.

Up stepped the coolest man on the field. MacDonald may be off to ply his trade in Japan, but in Crusaders country his legend will burn brightly for a long time to come.

Crusaders 15 (Leon MacDonald 4 pen, dropped goal)

Blues 13 (Isaia Toeava try; Jimmy Gopperth 2 pen, con).

Halftime: 6-3.

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