Saturday, April 10, 2010

Controversial try lifts Crusaders to 26-26 draw
April 3, 2010

Crusaders 26 Hurricanes 26

It's lucky Jonathan Kaplan wasn't able to head down Courtney Place on Good Friday night for a few quiets after his role in a contentious Super 14 draw between the Hurricanes and Crusaders at the Cake Tin.

Surely the South African referee's safety wouldn't have been able to be guaranteed if he'd wandered out into the public's, er, embrace after he was the central villain in a 26-26 draw that may have all but ended the Canes' playoff hopes.

Maybe now Steve Walsh can be replaced as the Hurricanes' most hated whistle-blower, and certainly there will have been a few sob stories being swapped among Canes supporters as they trudged away from Westpac Stadium wondering how they weren't celebrating a rare victory over the seven-time Super rugby champions.

No matter what way you looked at it, Kaplan - rated by many as the world's best referee - did not have a good match.

In fact he had a shocker, which surely his own review will find. He made bad calls both ways, but certainly more of them against the home side, including the game's two defining decisions.

At the end of this typically competitive match between these two fairly heated rivals, neither side would have been happy with the final result - a couple of points each, and really a bit like kissing your sister - but it's no stretch to say the Canes would have been the least content.

Depending on your view the Hurricanes were either incredibly unlucky, or flat-out robbed.

Kaplan allowed an illegal quick throw in the first half that allowed the Crusaders to score a second try that never should have been, and then at the very end of this stirring encounter he pretty much gave a try - on the strength of his wording to the TMO - that Canes fans will argue to they're blue in the face that there was no evidence the Crusaders had scored.

First things first. Kaplan flat out got it wrong when he allowed Andy Ellis to take a quick lineout throw which put Zac Guildford in for the second try of the opening half, and an 18-0 lead. Conrad Smith had clearly handled the ball in touch, and it should have been pulled back.

Then at the end, with the Crusaders pummelling the Canes' line, time up and the visitors trailing 21-26, he gave it the old "is there any reason why I can't award the try" when the visitors rumbled over in a melee of bodies.

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Replays of every angle possible showed no evidence a try had been scored - it was awarded to Ti'i Paulo but goodness knows who actually scored it - but given the ref's warning it was still awarded. Maybe a good call. But maybe not.

Later Crusaders skipper Richie McCaw said he felt the try had been legitimate, and certainly Kaplan was in a good position as the red and black tide lunged over the line. But in such crucial circumstances it would have been gutting for Colin Cooper's side to be denied two competition points when it looked liked they'd done enough to secure a deserved victory.

The Hurricanes had been desperate for the win to halt a four-game losing skid that put their season on the precipice, but in the end had to settle for just the second draw in the 19th meeting between these staunch rivals.

A rollercoaster, and at times controversial, first half ended with the Crusaders in front 18-14, but with the home side well and truly back in the match after being stunned by an early onslaught from the visitors.

It has to be said the Crusaders were aided in the first half by what was, for all intents and purposes, a shocking first 40 from the referee rated by many as the best in the business, South African Jonathan Kaplan.

Kaplan and his assistants certainly gifted the Crusaders their second try in the 26th minute when they should never have allowed Andy Ellis to take a quick lineout throw after Conrad Smith had clearly handled the ball over the touchline.

Instead Ellis was allowed to grab the ball straight from Smith, take the quick throw and pretty much catch the Canes napping. Big Robbie Fruean thundered down the middle and found Zac Guildford for the finish. At 18-0 it was one-way traffic to the visitors.

Earlier George Whitelock had capped a sharp Crusaders opening when he thundered over after just a couple of minutes, again via some big yardage from Fruean, and a couple of Dan Carter penalties had seen the Canes trailing 0-11 at the end of the opening quarter.

But then something snapped for the desperate Canes, and two vital tries before the end of the half not only rescued momentum, but their very prospects in this match.

Ma'a Nonu, having his best match of the season, bedazzled some outmatched forwards to get the Canes on the board in the 28th minute, then lock Jeremy Thrush reduced the deficit to four by the half when he finished a sparkling move that saw Victor Vito offload beautifully and Conrad Smith and Cory Jane feature.

Andy Ellis nearly snaffled a late try, but couldn't ground right at the end of the half, and then couldn't come back for the second spell after the damage inflicted.

It looked like being a penalty-only second spell until it all got contentious at the finish, as Piri Weepu banged over four second-half penalties to just one from Carter to put the Canes in the box seat.

Momentum had been well and truly wrested by the home side, and it looked as though they were going to sneak away with an all-too-rare victory over the Red 'n Blacks.

But to their credit the Crusaders had one last response in them before all was said and done. They went 13 phases on the Canes' line, before coming back for a penalty.

Then from a scrum, they summoned the forces once again, banged away and banged away, and finally the try was scored. Or was it?

Let the arguments begin.

At least Dan Carter - badly out of sorts by his high standards - had the decency to miss the match-winning conversion. That summed up a poor night for the All Black.

Nonu and Conrad Smith were the best of the Canes backs, with Piri Weepu having another strong match at halfback, while Rodney So'oialo had a sterling battle up front against Kieran Read which saw the honours close.

McCaw gave it plenty for the Crusaders, and their set pieces were superior. But they went off the boil after halftime, when dangerous runners like Fruean, Guildford and Sean Maitland had little ball to play with.

Hurricanes 26 (Ma'a Nonu, Jeremy Thrush tries; Piri Weepu 4 pen, Willie Ripa 2 con)
Crusaders 26 (George Whitelock, Zac Guildford, Chris Jack tries; Daniel Carter 3 pen, con)
Halftime: 14-18.

Sorry about the delay. Contributors were on holiday.
Thanks for your understanding (& Happy Easter!!!)

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