Patrick McKendry is a rugby writer for the Herald.

Rugby: Consistent Crusaders flying under the radar

Crusaders 43 Lions 37
Ryan Crotty of the Crusaders. Photo / Getty Images.
Ryan Crotty of the Crusaders. Photo / Getty Images.

In the immediate aftermath of this morning's exhausting, end-to-end victory at high altitude for the Crusaders over the Lions in Johannesburg, skipper Kieran Read was asked whether this was the best red-and-black team he had played for.

It patently isn't, because former All Blacks greats Richie McCaw and Dan Carter are no longer there, and neither is Colin Slade who is a very good operator at Super Rugby level.

Whether the interviewer, former Springbok Joel Stransky, truly believed that or had simply run out of things to ask, it's hard to say, but Read considered the question before giving a diplomatic answer about this still being "early days" in the season and adding that Todd Blackadder's team are building with improvements still to come.

But while the Crusaders can no longer be considered the best team in the competition on paper - and they inevitably were under McCaw and Carter - they are playing as consistently as they ever have at this stage of the season. With an early-season bye and a trip to the Republic, they have flown under the radar, but will be on most screens now and are looking good to make up for last year's disappointment when they failed to make the playoffs.

Their 43-37 victory over the Lions at Ellis Park today came after their 19-14 win over the Sharks at Durban the week before. The Lions are the Currie Cup champions and beat the Chiefs at Waikato Stadium with their well-drilled forwards and a backline brilliantly marshalled by No 10 Elton Jantjies.

The Crusaders responded by scoring six tries to four and should have claimed a bonus point but for an outbreak of bad defending at the end.

The Sharks went into their match against the Crusaders unbeaten. The Crusaders, with first-five Richie Mo'unga kicking only one from five shots at goal, should have won by more.

After an ordinary game from Mo'unga, who also threw a pass for an intercept try, the 21-year-old turned it on yesterday, kicking six from seven and playing with confidence and style.

Even the absence through injury of fullback Israel Dagg has been covered for - although they could have done with his cool head and booming boot in their only defeat of the season so far when they went down in their opener against the Chiefs in Christchurch. Dagg was scheduled to play for his University club this weekend and his return will be another boost for the Crusaders, just as Ryan Crotty's was.

Crotty was reasonably quiet against the Sharks in his first game back, but scored a hat-trick against the Lions, including one just over 50 seconds from the opening kickoff, and two in two minutes early in the second half. He's not at his best, but his second try - through heavy traffic from 25m out - showcased his balance and strength and was a promise of good things to come for Blackadder's men.

They have fewer stars in their team, but are apparently closer for it. There is a realisation that everyone has to dig that little bit deeper - a bit like the Highlanders on their championship run last year - and it is paying dividends.

Only once before have the Crusaders enjoyed a clean sweep of South Africa during Blackadder's eight years in charge and they did it the hard way, with some indifferent officiating, including that from referee Stuart Berry today.

And any team able to bring prop Joe Moody, hooker Ben Funnell, lock Sam Whitelock and loose forward Jordan Taufua off the bench is one with tremendous depth, one that no team will want to meet this season.

Assistant coach Tabai Matson revealed today his team were "absolutely shattered" in the changing room, but the cheers echoing down the concrete tunnel told their own story.

The Force in Perth - a notorious bogey team for the Crusaders - are next but, despite the impending travel, they will be in good spirits and relatively injury free.

Matson said of the Force: "We owe them one too, by the way."

Crusaders 43 (Ryan Crotty 3, Johnny McNicholl, Wyatt Crockett, Mitchell Drummond tries; Richie Mo'unga 5 cons; pen).
Lions 37 (Akker van der Merwe 2, Lionel Mapoe, Elton Jantjies tries, Jantjies 4 cons, 3 pens)
Halftime 20-22.

Crusaders v Lions - Match centre

- NZ Herald

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