Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Loss a blow to Crusaders' proud reputation RICHARD KNOWLER  14/05/2012

OPINION: Meek. Instead, his input was non-existent after he slipped from his lineout lifters' grasp and was forced off with a back injury.

Let's throw that word out there to describe the Crusaders' performance in their 28-19 defeat to the Rebels.

The hug-up-and-forget brigade might prefer to use more sanguine terms to describe Saturday night's effort in Melbourne, but let's not dare go there. This is no time to go treading on eggshells.

The facts speak for themselves: the Crusaders were embarrassed by a motivated team consisting largely of ex-Aussie internationals, no-names and bright-eyed wannabes.

Contrast that with the seven-time Super Rugby champions who started eight All Blacks, including two of the greatest rugby players ever to play at AAMI Park in Richie McCaw and Dan Carter, and had another five on the bench.

Before the kickoff the Crusaders had their sights fixed on a top-four spot and were on a four-match winning streak.

Contrast that to the Rebels, who are already out of finals contention and probably had some younger players wondering whether they should ask coves like McCaw and Carter for their autographs before or after the game.

Firstly, let's acknowledge the Rebels' deeds.

Their scrum may have been ineffective, and contrary to the Aussie TV commentators' propaganda, it is difficult to defend Rodney Blake's set-piece performance but they showed immense ticker to scramble back from a nine-point deficit to keep the Crusaders scoreless in the second half.

Even if their tactics in slowing the ball and conceding penalties whenever the Crusaders visited their half in the first spell were clumsy, they were effective. Good on them.

Their playmaking axis of Nick Phipps and Kurtley Beale sparked a willing attack and their pack outperformed their more illustrious counterparts.

So where did it go wrong for the Crusaders?

Their kicking game was often aimless and the chase line was lethargic, bordering on disinterested.

Although their set pieces were sound, their backs failed to mount any significant linebreaks; strike centre Robbie Fruean was hardly sighted, five-eighth Carter was too quiet when he was needed to ignite something and wing Zac Guildford's workrate was below his usual high standard.

Any complaints that coach Todd Blackadder waltzed into this ambush by resting All Blacks Kieran Read, Andy Ellis and Israel Dagg will struggle for traction.

He had to rest them at some point and the Rebels presented a logical target for this strategy.

By inserting Read into the match in the second spell Blackadder hoped the in-form No8 would inspire his mates to lift out of their embarrassing slump.

It is pointless to bang on about how much the Crusaders are missing gnarly lock Brad Thorn but what would Blackadder have given to have the old warhorse strapping on his body armour against the Rebels?

Thorn would have used his physicality and bulk to bash opponents at the breakdowns and galvanise team-mates such as the Franks brothers and Sam Whitelock.

Before facing the Blues in Addington this weekend the hitmen in the Crusaders pack must undergo a serious self-scrutiny session and honestly ask if they gave their all against the Rebels.

The backs cannot escape this, either; they need to ask why they haven't scored a try in 186 minutes.

The Crusaders' proud reputation suffered a fearful blow on Saturday night.

Righting these wrongs must be a priority against the Blues or their title hopes could be in jeopardy.

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