By Paul Lewis
4:00 AM Sunday May 9, 2010
There's been a lot of alarmist twaddle recently about Daniel Carter's lack of form and one of the dominating conclusions to be drawn from this thriller was that a world-class player needs very little to become world-class again.
Carter was just that in this match. Opposite him Morne Steyn gave a similar performance. He is still a matchwinner even if he does not quite have Carter's range of skills; those booming drop goals of Steyn's are an arrow in the heart of many opponents.
Their play - and that of both backlines - made this one of the most exciting Super 14 matches in many a year; the infection spreading to the forwards as both brotherhoods of big, bulky blokes manufactured incisive, involuntary-applause-inducing passing rushes for tries to Crusaders' star forward, Brad Thorn, and to Bulls' head honcho Victor Matfield.
Both tries were uncannily alike in the skill and deftness of the passing by mostly tight forwards.
Some in the Northern Hemisphere will read this result and sneer at another Super 14 basketball game. Some of the defence was not world-class, true, but few Northern Hemisphere sides could have lived with the pace, skill and creativity of both sides.
Mistakes mostly came late in the game, when the real pressure was on, and the genuine penetration of both teams was a salute to their attitudes and to the lawmakers. Their tweaking, this time, has lessened the hold of defences without overdoing it.
If any Kiwis felt the game was controversially won because there were claims of a knock-on in winger Francois Hougaard's second and winning try, give it up.
The game was won by the Crusaders when Carter and Richie McCaw (another to have a fine match after recent ordinary form) charged down Steyn's last-minute drop goal attempt.
The game was lost by the Crusaders when they piled through after the ball, seeking to contain it and use up the last seconds on the clock. In doing so, their defence drifted in too far, leaving them vulnerable to a wide counter - which they got.
Hougaard, a converted halfback, had little influence on the game other than his two tries (the first a 55-metre scamper after halfback Fourie du Preez took Crusaders' ball from a suspiciously offside-looking position) but he is a nippy firecracker of a man who looked, at times, like a cross between James Small and Grant Batty.
No Kiwi rugby fan can complain at losing a match to a try like Hougaard's second, especially as a bit of defensive discipline would have seen the Crusaders win; which perhaps they deserved.
Only the most one-eyed will not acknowledge the growth of skill levels in the Bulls (and Stormers) and South African rugby in general. Not long ago many, including this writer, were lamenting their lack of attacking ability. They have come a long way quickly.
The Bulls won the scrums and lineouts and they won the match in spite of two yellow cards to the Crusaders' none. One was to lock Danie Roussouw - the rugged individual who started instead of Bakkies Botha.
The latter can be a bit of a meathead and the wish has often been expressed that Wayne Shelford was still playing so Botha could be acquainted with the term 'bush justice'.
However, Botha is highly effective. Roussouw isn't always and the decision to start him in his 100th game seemed a sentimental one when he threw his toys out of the cot when Ben Franks almost spear-tackled him. Roussouw then delivered two crass head high tackles to get his marching orders, costing his side a try.
If there was a legitimate Kiwi gripe, it could centre around the refereeing. The 50-50 calls seemed to favour the home side and, any time the TMO came into use, there often seemed to be a lingering search for any reason to benefit the Bulls and disadvantage the Crusaders.
Maybe that's just New Zealand paranoia among those of us who still remember South African referees like Gert Bezuidenhout - but, now the recession seems to be passing, maybe it's time we got back to neutral referees in Super rugby.
But, in such a fine match, it's appropriate to put such parochial niggles aside.
There was much else to admire.
Todd Blackadder's selection of Daniel Bowden at second five-eighths seemed odd. But the selection was allied to a pacy game plan and Bowden, soon to be lost to New Zealand rugby, made space well with his timing and clever distribution.
Halfback Andy Ellis, overshadowed by Kahn Fotuali'i for much of this season, made a slashing return to form with the sort of game to make the All Black selectors' antennae twitch.
In the forwards, although the Crusaders' scrum was worryingly wonky, Brad Thorn was the stand-out. What will the Crusaders and the All Blacks do for muscle and commitment when he retires?
McCaw played a fine game sniping in the rucks and mauls and linking with the play and Chris Jack had another solid game - sparking hooker Ti'i Paulo's clever run to produce Thorn's try and scoring one himself. They didn't miss Corey Flynn.
Carter was in splendid touch and his goalkicking, even under intense pressure, held up. He even answered back Steyn with a drop goal. His chop outside Wynand Olivier and then inside a helpless forward to set up Ellis's try was pure class.
If it was the Bulls' victory, the Crusaders at least racked up enough bonus points to mean that, if they beat the Brumbies on Friday, they will make the play-offs. And a return match between these two, maybe even with a neutral ref and the prospect of more of this quality? Could be interesting.
Bulls 40 (F. Hougaard 2, V. Matfield tries; M. Steyn 4 pens, 2 cons, 2 drop goals), Crusaders 35 (B. Thorn, A. Ellis, S. Maitland, T. Paulo tries; D. Carter 2 pens, 2 cons, drop goal). Halftime: 24-19.