Sunday, February 26, 2012

Donnelly outstanding in Super start to season PHIL GIFFORD 26/02/2012 

OPINION: All Blacks lock Tom Donnelly may have been born and brought up in Rotorua, and played most of his rugby in Otago, but he already looks like a man born to be a Crusader.
Stepping into the engine room role vacated by man of steel Brad Thorn, he's bringing a gleam to the eye of his new coach Todd Blackadder, someone very familiar with the hard, sweaty work of a second-rower.
Donnelly's move to Christchurch didn't bring the publicity barrage that erupted when former Hurricanes were scattered throughout the country, or when Sonny Bill Williams went to Hamilton, but his game against the Blues showed just how vital he may be to the Crusaders this year.
There's nothing flashy about Donnelly, from his old-school headgear to the grunt he contributes to the scrum, but four All Black locks started at Eden Park on Friday night, and none was more impressive.
At 2m, Donnelly has the height to be a dominant lineout player. With 15 tests behind him, and a Super Rugby career that began in 2004, he has the experience and savvy to complement the physical gifts.
In the first half he made two clean lineout steals, against Jerome Kaino and Anthony Boric, valuable in themselves, but also enough to make the Blues' lineout players jittery. They would eventually concede five of their own throws.
In general, the match confirmed several points.
1: The feeling Super Rugby will benefit from the World Cup feelgood factor was reflected in a crowd of 32,000. Fans were still streaming in as the game started.
2: The Blues and the Crusaders are the most likely Super teams to be challenging at the end of the competition. The Blues defence is much more aggressive this year, reflecting the sort of siege-gun tackling coach Pat Lam knows so well from his playing days with Manu Samoa. The intensity off the line led directly to the charge-down and try for Chris Lowrey early in the game.
3: Robbie Fruean has the potential to be a world-class centre. His blistering speed, crossed with a physique the Incredible Hulk would envy, makes him almost irresistible in a one-on-one situation.
4: There's no substitute for shrewd, quick thinking under pressure. When the Crusaders, one point down, had the ball in the 63rd minute, halfback Andy Ellis didn't mess around when referee Chris Pollock called advantage. He tried a dropped goal, and when that missed by a mile, presented Tyler Bleyendaal with a gimme penalty in front of the posts. By contrast the Blues, with the penalty count at the breakdowns wildly in their favour, could have persisted with rumbling the ball forward in front of the Crusaders' posts until a last-minute dropped goal for Piri Weepu was a stone-cold certainty. A dozen stop-frame studies of the play shows Israel Dagg, who got a finger to the ball, was on-side. Adam Whitelock, charging beside him, may not have been. But the Blues didn't remove any reliance on a referee's call themselves, and they could have.
5: The sooner Weepu is fully fit the better for the Blues. The Weepu World Cup online gags "Do I have to do everything around here?" were, as Homer Simpson says, funny because they were true. The pity for the Blues is that he's so unfit at the moment he can probably only do everything for 20 minutes.
6: The Crusaders were caned at the breakdowns, but given their reputation for being quick learners, it'd be a major surprise if things didn't improve when they play the Highlanders on Saturday.
7: Comedian Max Boyce in the 1970s claimed the Welsh had a flyhalf factory. Well, move over Wales, and welcome in Christchurch Boys' High, which has produced Mehrtens, Mauger, Carter, and now (there's a surprise) Bleyendaal.

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