Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Crusaders' win christens new home

Robbie Fruean gets on the scoreboard for the Crusaders. Photo / Getty Images
Robbie Fruean gets on the scoreboard for the Crusaders. Photo / Getty Images

Crusaders 28 Cheetahs 21

Normal service has been resumed. Only just, but resumed all the same. The Crusaders are back home, they have returned to their winning ways and the son of God has slipped into the fray.

All it needs now is for God himself, Richie McCaw, to ease his way back into action and join his old chum Dan Carter in steering this incredible team to Super Rugby supremacy.

Would anyone begrudge them the title? Would anyone who saw 17,000 rugby-starved, emotionally battered souls rise as one last night to welcome back their heroes, say they didn't feel the elation; the sense of tragedy and pain being left behind?

This is a new beginning for the Crusaders and one that feels decidedly right. From almost nothing, a new stadium has arisen in just 100 days - symbolising the hard work and ingenuity that have been Crusader values for an age.

Yet for all the feel good and genuine excitement to be, they won't be enraptured by their performance; the error count will trouble them, their lack of counter attack penetration and defensive frailties will all be high on the agenda to be fixed this week.

They made hard work of things; their exuberance and desire to run from deep often leading them into places they should never have been. At 21-all with 10 minutes left, they were on edge, in danger of spoiling their own party until they hammered away at the line to create the space out wide for Israel Dagg to coast home unmarked. Everyone would rather the game had been in the bag a little earlier but, nonetheless, all that mattered was that the victory came to mark the occasion and start things off properly.

It had felt like the floodgates were going to open in the second half. Once they eased the nerves and rust out the system and remembered that the Cheetahs are surprisingly resilient and a touch tricky if they are let run, the Crusaders fell into that hypnotic rhythm of theirs after half an hour.

It helped no end that Carter came off the bench for the second 40, breezing around like he always does without a hint of ever having been away. His first touch was to glide onto the ball and then time a delayed pass that allowed Robbie Fruean to drift past his defender and charge to the line. Classic Carter and of course he shrugged, trotted back without the faintest appreciation that with one act he'd changed the entire dynamic of the competition.

The mood changed - maybe it was the brilliant try Sean Maitland scored late in the first half. It had been a bit of a struggle until then; the Crusaders holding possession, working the phases but making little actual territorial gain for their endeavour.

To finally bust the Cheetahs wide open brought as much relief as it did satisfaction. There was a big reminder in the build-up work that the Crusaders do simple things with such precision and speed. Tom Taylor flipped an inside pass to Zac Guildford, before the ball went through the hands to Maitland.

Teams spend hours each week analysing and honing their defensive structures but there is not much that can be done when the passing is so crisp and the timing on the button. Nerves settled and the confidence flooded back. And how it must have felt good.

The Crusaders, so long without a home ground, finally had a manor to lord it over an opponent. It never felt quite the same squashing teams in Nelson, Timaru, Napier, London and Wellington; fun, but it never brought the same satisfaction as being in Christchurch, in front of their own people.

They would have loved to have worked the full range of their weaponry in the final quarter - a bit like the old days of Communism when the Russians crammed Red Square with all the artillery they had; there is something chilling about seeing so much destructive power primed and ready. But the Cheetahs had injury dramas in their front row and the game was reduced to Golden Oldie scrums. The pity of that was that the Crusaders were making amends for the shellacking they took in their last outing against the Chiefs.

They delivered a few fearsome shunts in the first half and were clearly hungry for more. The Crusaders were also prohibited by a staunch performance from the South Africans who have to be acknowledged for their enterprise and commitment.

Crusaders 28 (S. Maitland, R. Fruean, I. Dagg tries; T. Taylor 2 cons, 3 pens), Cheetahs 21 (R. Ebersohn, J. Goosen try; J. Goosen con, 3 pens).

- Herald on Sunday

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