Crusaders 30 Force 7
First, the good news for the Crusaders. They won against a pretty good Force team who threatened to turn this match, played in freezing temperatures in Christchurch tonight, on its head at one point.
It was not pretty, but it was a victory which consolidated their lead on top of the New Zealand conference, the margin of victory given a massive boost by two penalty tries with 10 minutes remaining. On balance, they were both fair decisions by referee Mike Fraser.
Kieran Read got through an 80-minute shift after his return from concussion. His intercept in the final minutes almost led to a second try for Johnny McNicholl but for a superb cover tackle by Nick Cummins.
Their set piece, especially their scrum, was increasingly dominant, Fraser awarding the penalty tries for a collapsed lineout maul, and, after the fulltime siren, a screwed scrum as the Crusaders went for the kill.
The finish put a gloss on this match, because at times the home side were too inaccurate. After leading 16-0 at halftime, they battled against a team with few stars and a pretty ordinary record in this competition.
Two other worries were the shoulder injuries sustained by All Black captain Richie McCaw and Israel Dagg. Neither seemed overly serious, but with the first test against England only a week away, Steve Hansen will be hoping for two good injury reports.
Michael Foley's outfit are no easy beats. They went into this match one place below the Crusaders in fourth, with, like the home side, eight victories to their name this season.
After a good start in which right wing McNicholl scored a try and had a second ruled out due to obstruction by prop Tim Perry, the Crusaders failed to kick on.
This Force team don't do a lot of flash stuff, but they are excellent at the breakdown. With men such as No8 Matt Hodgson in their line-up, they were as good as the Crusaders, who boasted the return of Read, McCaw and Jordan Taufua.
Any thoughts of a bonus point victory went out the door once fullback Dane Haylett-Petty went under the posts for the Force shortly after halftime. With Crusaders fullback Dagg injured by a late shot from hooker Nathan Charles, unnoticed by referee Fraser, the home side battled for an attacking edge. Nemani Nadolo was a force again in the first half, but failed to get into the game as it ground on.
A turning point was the sinbinning of Force lock Sam Wykes with 10 minutes remaining. The Crusaders took a lineout close to the Force line, the resulting maul was collapsed and a penalty try awarded.
After having to dig extremely deep to beat the Highlanders in Dunedin last weekend, it was perhaps no surprise that the Crusaders were a bit flat, but their record at home this season has been poor.
However, Todd Blackadder will probably cast his mind back to this time last year, when they were within a final penalty kick of losing to the visiting Waratahs, and know this was an important victory in the context of the season. Now, as the majority of his team leave for the England test series, it will be his turn to monitor the injury situation.
Crusaders: 30 (Johnny McNicholl try, 2 penalty tries; Colin Slade 3 pens, 3 cons)
Force: 7 (Dane Haylett-Petty try; Sias Ebersohn con)