Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Crusaders kicked back into top gear

Cory Flynn of the Crusaders is tackled during the match against the Stormers. Photo / Getty Images
Cory Flynn of the Crusaders is tackled during the match against the Stormers. Photo / Getty Images

Conviction in a faltering kicking game and a magical night for Tom Taylor enabled the Crusaders to slip into fourth gear last night and bludgeon their way past the Stormers.

In what was easily the most intense and enthralling game of the competition so far, the Crusaders established that they are now properly into things. They had to throw everything they had into the performance and show incredible courage and perseverance to get there, but get there they did and they now look poised to motor up the table and take control of this competition.

Their plan against the Stormers was to play with tempo when they kept hold of it and mix that with a relentless kicking game.

But as much as the Crusaders had fast ball in mind, this Stormers side is full of cussed, decidedly square men capable of driving anything back from other human-sized objects to icebergs. When the Crusaders sent one-off runners at them, they disappeared, swallowed in a morass of stripes.

The Stormers could have been at it for hours and never lost their appetite for smashing and swarming. They could also have played force back all night, especially when the Crusaders back three couldn't find the space. Clearly sticking to a game plan, the issue wasn't so much the continuous use of the boot, it was the lack of accuracy and direction with the exception of Taylor's goal-kicking - scoring a miraculous 31 points as he did.

Israel Dagg can be a genius when he runs. He didn't look so comfortable under orders to kick and the Stormers were never forced to turn or concede territory.

And that's what made the victory so special. At its core was raw passion - sheer willpower to keep sticking it to the Stormers.

Sides with lesser mental fortitude would have buckled - believed they had to try something radical to gain the breakthrough. Not the Crusaders. They knew that this contest was always coming down to endurance.

It was always going to be about hanging in there and scrapping for everything. The physicality was extreme and it really was a case of being prepared to crunch every yard; make every tackle; kick every goal and never stop running.

There was no need to deviate from the game plan as the Crusaders were firstly always in the contest even if they were being drilled back at times and losing the kick and chase war.

They also knew that when they got it right, they could make inroads. The Crusaders had worked out that the only way to break the meanest defence in the competition was to continually recycle quick ball. The Stormers are expert at using their big men in gang tackles to wrap up the ball and then take an age to roll away.

There were enough periods when they weren't able to slow things up the way they wanted because the Crusaders were accurate and deliberate in the way they took contact: individuals didn't try to run too far, or upright.

They hit the ground early, on their terms and then washed over the top to leave it on a plate for Andy Ellis. The next runner would crash on and the whole thing would repeat leaving the Stormers scrambling a harder than they have been used to.

It was smart rugby - an effective way of ensuring the Stormers defence was rarely able to reset. It was also a means of injecting pace into proceedings, partly to test the endurance of the visitors and partly in the likelihood it would throw up mismatches - mobile against not so mobile.

That was the key to the opening try - Israel Dagg was able to skip and hop in the way only he can to leave two Stormers forwards flouncing at nothing. The miss pass to Kieran Read was an added extra as it opened even more space for the No 8 to pass to Robbie Fruean who then delayed his return inside ball to the supporting Tom Taylor.

It was the sort of play that suggested the Crusaders had spent ample time during the week analysing just how they were going to penetrate the Stormers rather than endlessly stretch them from side to side.

It helped that the Stormers were hit with an injury crisis that saw them lose the giant Andries Bekker after just nine minutes and his locking partner Eben Etzebeth just before the break. Losing the tall timber drained the confidence from the Stormers' lineout - their other critical weapon - and teams on tour never feel great when confronted by a hostile home crowd and then see their reserve hooker packing down on the flank, and their flanker locked in the boiler house.

Those periods of domination and quick ball were the seeds from which victory was sown. Asked to scramble that much, the Stormers conceded the penalties that ultimately killed them.

Crusaders 31 (T. Taylor try; T. Taylor 8 pens, con), Stormers 21 (J. de Jongh, B. Habana tries; P. Grant 2 pens; J. Pietersen 2 cons, 2 pens). Halftime: 19-14

- Herald on Sunday

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