Patrick McKendry

Patrick McKendry is a rugby writer for the Herald.

Rugby: Crusaders need to focus on defence

As the Crusaders attempted to get to grips with their round-robin defeat to a 14-man Sharks in Christchurch in May, the most concerning aspect would have been their collective failure on defence.

Almost forgotten in the hubbub surrounding the match, which featured the sending off of Jean Deysel and sinbinning of Willem Alberts, and the result, the first time the Sharks had won in Christchurch, was the fact that the Crusaders were leading after 73 minutes.

Colin Slade's sixth penalty had given them a 25-23 advantage, before the Sharks dramatically turned the tables when substitute hooker Kyle Cooper burst from a maul close to the Crusaders' line and went over in the tackle of halfback Andy Ellis, with flanker George Whitelock, on for Jordan Taufua, in support but too far away to assist.

For the Crusaders it was the continuation of a worrying trend in Christchurch this season.

Against the Chiefs in their first match they conceded an intercept try to wing James Lowe after 78 minutes which cost them a losing bonus point. The Crusaders would probably have scored had the pass gone to hand. In the end the Chiefs won 18-11.

And Hurricanes midfielder Alapati Leiua was the chief architect in the Crusaders' demise in round seven when he scored a brilliant individual try after 73 minutes for the visitors' 29-26 victory.

However, the concession of a try to Cooper two months later would have been worse for coach Todd Blackadder. The Crusaders were in the lead and had a numerical advantage against a South African team which the week before had lost to the Brumbies in Canberra, yet they allowed a front rower to score within touching distance of their vaunted pack.

It would have made for difficult viewing a few days later, and it's no wonder the Crusaders' forwards started with such controlled fury against the Highland ers in Dunedin a week later, a match notable for the visitors' start and the Highlanders' finish in one of the games of the season.

The Crusaders won 32-30 thanks in part to Israel Dagg's superb covering tackle on Highlanders' wing Patrick Osborne. Since that match under the roof, in which the Crusaders and Highlanders scored four tries each, Blackadder's team have tightened considerably on defence.

In their following matches against the Force, Hurricanes, Blues and Highlanders, the Crusaders' try-line was breached once, twice, once and once, respectively. For all the talk about the Sharks' scrum and lineout maul in the lead up to tonight's match, the Crusaders would do well to emphasise the importance of their defence, and it is here, inevitably, that Richie McCaw, back for the first time since his broken rib, must lead from the front.

- NZ Herald

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