Rugby: Classy Crusaders down Blues

By Gregor Paul in Christchurch

Rene Ranger of the Blues is tackled during the round 14 Super Rugby match between the Crusaders and the Blues. Photo / Getty Images.
Rene Ranger of the Blues is tackled during the round 14 Super Rugby match between the Crusaders and the Blues. Photo / Getty Images.

CRUSADERS 23
BLUES 3

The Blues must wonder if there is anything other than misery awaiting them in Christchurch. They haven't won in the Garden City since 2004 and were never in any real danger of breaking that pattern tonight.

They were a distant second - a stranded climber for most of the second half, clinging to the rock face with only a tenuous grip.

They showed plenty of character in scrapping to the death as they did. Plenty of other sides would have resigned themselves to the hiding that seemed inevitable. But limiting the damage won't be much of a consolation.

The Blues were in Christchurch to win: they wanted to make a definitive statement of intent. They have caught the eye to date, thrown a few handy jabs - beating the Crusaders in Christchurch, though, was the knockout blow they needed to land. They didn't ever really make a decent swing - it never felt like it was going to be their night.

Winter arrived and brought with it, proper rugby. The pass and giggle stuff that dominated the first clash between these two in Auckland earlier in the season was put away and in its place came grunt and grind, big defence, kick and chase, scrummaging, off the ball scuffles and meaningful stares.

The Blues ran in five tries back in March when the drought had the nation in its grip and the Crusaders had barely come to grips with their ambitious plans of playing an adventurous brand of football. Last night was a different kettle of fish altogether.

There was a relentless light rain that required passes to be pulled in. That same rain left the field greasy - a treacherous surface for the dancers in the backs and also a valid explanation was to why there wasn't a spare inch to be found on the field.

The Blues couldn't build enough momentum through their forwards: the Crusaders defence was extraordinarily quick off the line, organised and effective.. They swallowed the Blues ball carriers, didn't let them recycle quickly and forced to play on the back foot, the backs couldn't dart and probe to isolate defenders one-on-one.

For all the improvements the Blues have made, they were not good enough to duke it out with the Crusaders on a wet, cold, tense evening. The Crusaders showed they still have the passion for a full-blooded derby: they made it clear that they come alive on these occasions.

Owen Franks, not always visible this season outside of the set-piece, was suddenly playing like a dark cloud: full of menace and continually on the move. Sam Whitelock and Luke Romano looked like All Black locks and Kieran Read, simply by being back, lifted the intensity and willing.

The Blues didn't shirk the battle or try to shift the frame of reference by avoiding the collisions and going wide early. They fronted all right, gave it all they had but for all their valour and resistance, they aren't a rough and tumble team quite yet. They didn't have the collective grunt to own the gainline and eventually stretch the Crusaders defence through phase after phase of quick release ruck ball.

The Crusaders, on the other hand, were in their element. Few things excite them more than the opportunity to slowly dissect a team: to frustrate them, gradually wear them down and reap the benefits of their relentless pressure. The critical scores came from continued, rather than sporadic hard work.

Ryan Crotty was only able to charge down Chris Noakes' clearance kick because the Blues first-five had lost patience at getting nowhere with ball in hand. Every Blues runner he had hit in the preceding phases had been sent thundering into the turf, so with no other idea to clutch, he tried a chip kick that Crotty was easily able to get to, block, pick up and score.

Franks' try after 50 minutes owed everything to the Blues being down a man - Culum Retallick sin-binned before half-time when he had no choice but to slap down a try-scoring pass.

Read expertly picked the time to spurn the shot for goal and instead set up a driving maul from the lineout.

The Blues and Crusaders may be about to follow disparate paths now: the former may be about to hit the invisible wall many a young, promising team runs into at this stage of the campaign. The latter, well, they may be about to take an iron grip on the competition and dog fight their way to the playoffs.

Crusaders 23 (R. Crotty, O. Franks tries; T. Taylor 2 cons, 3 pens)
Blues 3 (C. Noakes pen)

- Herald on Sunday

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