A converted try to loose forward Jordan Taufua at the death has rescued the Crusaders against the Force in Perth this morning.
Taufua's driving run through three would-be defenders for the try with two minutes and 10 seconds remaining was manna from heaven for Todd Blackadder's side, who were in real danger of throwing away all the advantage they had built from their two victories from two matches in South Africa.
Perth has long been an awkward place for the Crusaders, who haven't won there since 2011, but Taufua's try and Richie Mo'unga's conversion from near the posts allowed them to break that run.
There was still a nervous moment for the visitors at the end, though, with referee Ben O'Keefe blowing his whistle from the re-start, but instead of a penalty for the Force, who would have fancied their chances of sticking the knife in through sharp-shooter Peter Grant, it went the Crusaders' way, and they kicked for touch at the final hooter almost giddy with relief.
A defeat to the Force would have been a damaging result for the Crusaders given the form of the other New Zealand teams and the fact they were leading and in almost complete control at halftime. Instead, hours after the Chiefs' contrasting 29-23 victory over the Blues in Hamilton, the Crusaders' win allowed them to retain their sixth place on the table, with a game in hand over many of the front runners.
It would have been damaging in terms of confidence too because the Force were in disarray in the first half. They couldn't win a lineout, the Crusaders winning that area 12-0, and they missed 12 tackles to the Crusaders' one. Not once did they threaten the visitors' line in the first stanza but it all changed after the break thanks mainly to a little scoreboard pressure due entirely to Force goalkicker Grant, who sent his team to within a point at 13-12, and a disintegration of the Crusaders' basic skills.
Panic set in, and the sense of dread settling over the Crusaders from as early as 20 minutes to go was palpable.
The Crusaders, up thanks to an early try to halfback Mitchell Drummond and another to wing Johnny McNicholl, camped in the Force half in the final 10 minutes as they attempted to come back from a 19-13 deficit, but they didn't go near to breaching the home defence until Taufua's intervention because they struggled to string two passes together.
"I don't think it was a good performance to be honest," skipper Kieran Read said afterwards. It wasn't what we wanted to come here to do. It showed the character of the team though. We'll take the win and get back to the drawing board when we get home.
"We're in a good place I guess now in terms of results. Certainly, there is a lot of work to do. But we showed a lot of heart at the end there. A lot of teams would have rolled over.
"We made far to many errors which you can't do in this competition."
Fullback Ben Volavola's mistake, when he lost the ball near halfway with his side holding a 13-12 lead, allowed the Force to score through Ryan Louwrens and put enormous pressure on his side. Blackadder will be hoping Israel Dagg, who travelled to Perth as an injury replacement but didn't play, is available for the next match against the Jaguares in Christchurch.
McNicholl, who was again excellent throughout, missed a chance when he fumbled Richie Mo'unga's cross kick, but Taufua came to the rescue of him and his teammates. It was a blip for McNicholl, with Read, Mo'unga and Luke Romano impressing too, but mainly in the first half.
There could be little doubt that the superb Taufua was the Crusaders' man of the match.
The victory means the last New Zealand team to lose to an overseas team this season remains the Chiefs with their defeat to the Lions in Hamilton on March 5.
Crusaders 20 (Mitchell Drummond, Johnny McNicholl, Jordan Taufua tries; Richie Mo'unga pen, con)
Force 19 (Ryan Louwrens try; Peter Grant 4 pens, con)