Rugby: Crusaders just too classy

By Michael Brown

Ma'a Nonu of the Hurricanes is tackled by George Whitelock of the Crusaders. Photo / Getty Images
Ma'a Nonu of the Hurricanes is tackled by George Whitelock of the Crusaders. Photo / Getty Images

Crusaders 16 Hurricanes 9

There were so many sub-plots in this match, it might interest a Hollywood director.

In one thread, the 'home' side chose to play the game in opposition territory because their own stadium had been ruined by an earthquake.

They travelled to Wellington in a DC3 that once dropped American paratroopers into enemy territory during World World II because regular flights were interrupted by volcanic ash.

In the other, the away team playing at home were farewelling five players - some being controversially jettisoned by the coach, who had his doubters.

They had also been revved up by the All Blacks coach to end their season with a bang.

Oh, and add in opposing coaches who not only used to play with each other but were also once a coaching duo and it almost seemed too fanciful to be true.

In the end, however, only one thing really mattered: could the Crusaders win and claim at least third heading into the playoffs?

That they did is another indication of how remarkable this Crusaders team is. If they can win an eighth Super Rugby title this season, it must surely be their greatest triumph given the adversity they have faced. The longest they have spent in the same bed consecutively this season is eight nights - and that was in Cape Town.

They can at least look forward to a 'home' game next weekend in Nelson, probably against the Waratahs.

They were made to work hard for it last night. The Hurricanes might have long been out of the race for the playoffs but there was plenty for them to play for.

The tone was set early when prop Neemia Tialata, who was playing his 101st and last Hurricanes game after signing with Bayonne for next season, put a monstrous hit on Owen Franks.

Ma'a Nonu, who is yet to find a home next season after being told he wasn't wanted, followed it up with a shoulder charge on Dan Carter which drew a penalty and a cutting comment to referee Chris Pollock from Hurricanes captain Andrew Hore: "Are we not allowed to tackle Carter in this game?" Not if it injures him, Andrew.

Ultimately, however, the Hurricanes couldn't match the class of the Crusaders. They had plenty of passion but not as much precision. Against another side they might have won and it makes you wonder why they couldn't have brought that sort of energy every week.

But the red-and-blacks also had much to play for and, although they made too many errors for their own liking, weren't going to let a team wanting to make a statement activate the vocal chords.

The first half was often brutal as the Crusaders looked to suffocate the Hurricanes with some bone-jarring hits.

The tightness of the contest was reflected in the 6-6 scoreline.

Zac Guildford, as he did last weekend, then bust the game open with a superb 45m run and then pass for Robbie Fruean to score two minutes after the restart. Guildford is a deceptively quick and elusive runner who is making a compelling case for an All Blacks recall.

That converted try gave the Crusaders some breathing space to try to squeeze the life out of the opposition. Although the errors continued, they don't often give up leads and weren't about to start last night.

They played the game in the right areas of the park to ensure they didn't give the Hurricanes too much encouragement. Their scrum started to take control and Carter and halfback Andy Ellis kicked smartly. Ellis, who had an excellent all round game, even landed a 45m dropped goal.

When the Crusaders were put under some pressure, like when the Hurricanes raced 60m upfield with 15 minutes to play and threatened to bust the game open, their defence held firm - Tom Marshall put a devastatingly effective hit on Aaron Cruden scooting for the line.

The Crusaders won't be entirely satisfied because of the error count but they did well to quell a sentimental side and also picked up the New Zealand conference title. If nothing else, it was a good taste of what playoffs football will be like for the Crusaders. The energy levels go up a notch in these contests.

Whether the final script has a happy Hollywood ending is something even the directors can't predict.

Crusaders 16 (R. Freuan try; D. Carter 2 pens, con; A. Ellis dg) Hurricanes 9 (A. Cruden 3 pens). HT: 6-6.

- Herald on Sunday

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