Sunday, April 08, 2012

Crusaders distracted, thwarted in Pretoria RICHARD KNOWLER 09/04/2012

OPINION: Allegations of foul play, a meddling assistant referee and a spirited late comeback, this script contained the lot.
There's always some drama on the high veldt for the Crusaders. Whenever they have confronted the Bulls at Loftus Versfeld in recent seasons the Crusaders have gone to their changing shed with steam exiting their ears while searching for an inanimate object to kick through the ceiling.
And following their 32-30 defeat yesterday morning they returned to that painfully familiar routine as they sat in a pool of sweat and stared at each other in disbelief.
Ahead 13-9 at halftime after winning the territory war, the Crusaders watched everything unravel in the second spell as the Bulls' piled on 23 points to lead 32-16 with 10 minutes remaining.
Then came the dramatic fightback: tries to Zac Guildford and Tom Marshall were converted by Dan Carter and only when replacement back rower Luke Whitelock fumbled a pass during another raid in injury time was the match lost.
Rugby romantics could say the Crusaders won the plaudits for the game plan but lost the war; they loaded their attack with numbers out wide, probed for gaps, played at tempo and outscored the Bulls by three tries to two.
The difference was the Bulls kicking machine, Morne Steyn, who slotted eight of his 10 attempts.
The Crusaders will also have taken heart from this defeat. Unlike their dozy performance against the Lions the previous weekend, the forwards were bristling with aggression and the backline began to click with their offloads and passes sticking.
Captain Kieran Read was immense. His defence was aggressive and he scored a cracking try when he charged onto an Andy Ellis pass from depth and splintered Pierre Spies and Juandre Kruger's tackles.
As they dissect this performance the Crusaders will also prod their own chests and acknowledge they contributed too many errors.
Fullback Israel Dagg made two dreadful blunders and Dan Carter, in his first assignment back kicking since rupturing his groin at the World Cup, looked rusty when he missed three kickable penalties. Then there was the bizarre contribution of chatterbox Pro Legoete, the assistant referee, who nitpicked the Crusaders' every move to referee Jaco Peyper.
Judging by the glances they sent in Legoete's direction the Crusaders may have been content to allow a frothy-mouthed Bulls fan to man the flag rather than put up with Legoete's meddling. Legoete had a heavy hand in several crucial calls against the tourists, including dubious penalties.
They were incensed when replacement back Tom Taylor's late try was disallowed because Carter was accused of running interference, arguing he was allowed to hold his line.
The Crusaders will also be in the unique territory this week of having to deal with accusations they are eye-gougers.
Even if they are cleared, it could prove a disruption ahead of their match against the Stormers on Saturday night as players wonder just what the citing commissioner will dig up.
Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder also has some decisions to make; some men may need to be rotated to keep them fresh, but he will require his top side against the unbeaten Stormers.
With Richie McCaw still a couple of weeks away from returning from his foot injury, Matt Todd or Read cannot expect a rest.
The backline is likely to stay the same and the out-of-sorts Dagg is likely to start again to rediscover his confidence following his Loftus nightmare.

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