Patrick McKendry is a rugby writer for the Herald.

Rugby: Blues tough defence make Crusaders work for every point

Johnny McNicholl of the Crusaders is tackled by George Moala of the Blues. Photo / Getty Images.
Johnny McNicholl of the Crusaders is tackled by George Moala of the Blues. Photo / Getty Images.

The Blues, according to coach Tana Umaga, were tired this week.

They were yawning in team meetings after their travel from Johannesburg via Perth, the result not of boredom but disrupted sleeping patterns. His players, Umaga wryly noted, don't usually have trouble sleeping.

There was nothing tired about the way they defended against the Crusaders tonight, however. The Crusaders, with intentions of taking over the competition lead, had to work for everything.

Yes, the visitors sneaked down the left touchline after nine minutes through their giant wing Nemani Nadolo courtesy of a pair of slick hands from skipper Kieran Read but, for the rest of the half, the red and blacks couldn't breach them.

A significant moment in the first half, if not the match, was the tackle by Blues prop Charlie Faumuina on Crusaders right wing Johnny McNicholl.

Big Charlie had McNicholl lined up from five minutes before, or so it seemed, so when an inside pass found the slight Crusaders back, Faumuina was ready and waiting, connecting around the shoulder area with a perfectly-legal hit which flattened McNicholl and forced him from the field.

There were plenty of smaller moments each side of Faumuina's collision and they all added up to a burst of self-belief for the home side. Loose forwards Jerome Kaino and Kara Pryor were in the thick of it and, with each attack the Blues repelled, the more confident they appeared to get. No 8 Steven Luatua put a shot on Crusaders replacement Jimmy Tupou.

The Blues were blown off the park in Christchurch in the round two match between these sides. Not this time.

"It's something we focused on this week," skipper James Parsons said afterwards. "We knew if we could bring that intensity defensively, we'd give ourselves a chance because, if they can't get that front-foot ball, they can't get their game going. We managed to do that for probably another 60 minutes. It's just about finding that 80-minute performance and winning those tight ones."

The Crusaders rely on offloads to get their game going. If they don't have those sharp interplays among their big men or between their forwards and backs, then their plan B is to spread the ball wide. The Blues did well to nullify their first option and their second one played into the hands of the home side, who got across in a connected line and defended superbly in front of a good crowd of 21,000.

In the end, the workoad told. Crusaders centre Kieron Fonotia got through Ihaia West and then wrong-footed Billy Guyton, for the evergreen Andy Ellis to go over.

Fellow midfielder Ryan Crotty made a break and it all began to flow for the Crusaders, along with the penalties in their favour from referee Angus Gardner.

"They were up for a physical challenge, you could see that," a relieved Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder said. "It certainly showed at the contact and collisions. They were dominating us there, which shows their willingness. But I'm rapt with the second half, I though Reado and the boys worked hard to turn that around."

- NZ Herald

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